A scene from 'Empire'
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** stars
95 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, December 6, 2002
Directed by Franc Reyes

Starring John Leguizamo, Denise Richards, Peter Sarsgaard, Sonia Braga, Isabella Rossellini, Delilah Cotto


You could rent this film with "Sugar Hill," "Paid in Full" and a dozen other honorable drug dealer movies and see how long it takes you to get sick of the exact same cliches.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 03.18.2003


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Even with its investment-scam twist, 'Empire' is a familiar, predictable heroin dealer cautionary tale

By Rob Blackwelder

Any chance that "Empire" might be all that different from other drug- dealer- trying- to- go- straight movies is lost with the opening voice-over, in which heroin mini-kingpin Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) rattles off a dozen street life clichés in 60 seconds, starting with the line, "Damn, if I'd known then what I know now! It's all about making money, baby."

Never mind that the plot includes the hero losing his shirt and his boss's drug money in a Wall Street scam perpetrated by a savvy, Caucasian, uptown con artist. That only serves to prove that Victor is a sucker, not that his story is any different from those of drug dealers depicted in scads of other movies from the last 15 years -- October's "Paid In Full" or 1994's "Sugar Hill," for example.

Universal Pictures even admits as much in the film's press kit, which compares it "in theme and execution" to a "list of urban gangster films" but goes on to trumpet the fact that "Empire" is the first time this recycled story "has been told from the point of view of a Latino character."

That's it. Same movie, different skin tone.

This isn't to say director Franc. Reyes (yes, he spells his name with a period) doesn't make good use of his single unique plot element. Scam artist Jack Wimmer is played with deliberate but ever so slightly deceitful Wonder Bread banality by chameleonic actor Peter Sarsgaard -- who has been impossible to recognize as a brutal redneck in "Boys Don't Cry," a reclusive computer nerd in "Center of the World," a dimwit druggie in "The Salton Sea," and a nervous nuclear reactor technician in "K-19: The Widowmaker."

The way he manipulates Victor is so sly and subtle that his deceit might have even worked as a surprise when it's revealed -- if all the studio marketing hadn't given it away already. And Leguizamo shows real dramatic gusto as a big man in the barrio who can't help but feel smaller when he crosses into the world of high finance with his unsophisticated wads of liquid cash.

Victor is taken in by Jack's generosity, willingness to take a chance and apparent confidence in his unpolished, downtown business sense. He moves into a ritzy loft offered up at no charge by his new friend, and abandons his old life and his old friends in what becomes a well-played internal struggle for soul.

But isn't that pretty much a given? Everything else in the movie sure is. Victor's entry into the drug trade after the murder of his brother is genre standard procedure (although sometimes it's a mother, as in "Sugar Hill," or a best friend thrown in jail, as in "Paid in Full"). His closest lieutenant (Vincent Laresca) is a hotheaded loose cannon who makes a mess of the hero's tight street business after he's gone (just like in "Sugar Hill" and "Paid in Full").

Another sidekick (Rafael Baez) is tough but not so bright (ditto "Paid in Full"). His pregnant girlfriend (ditto, ditto) is a college student with a disapproving mother (Sonia Braga) and a bright future (ditto, ditto, ditto), who loves him in spite of his lifestyle (ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto...).

"Empire" has credible street smarts, although its cinema smarts prove dubious since Reyes employs such hackneyed scenes as the girlfriend (Delilah Cotto) walking in on Victor just as Jack's sexy white girlfriend (Denise Richards) is coming onto him. Its warm, visually rich cinematography (by Kramer Morgenthau) recognizes both beauty and decay in the picture's South Bronx locations.

But even with its investment-scam twist, every minute of the movie is familiar and predictable, and 4/5ths of it might as well have come from a Xerox machine rather than Franc. Reyes' word processor. Erase Sarsgaard, swap out Ruben Blades' Latin beat soundtrack for hip-hop, and replace Leguizamo with, say, Ice Cube, Mekhi Phifer, Terrence Howard or Omar Epps, and it would be hard to distinguish "Empire" from its equally unremarkable, Harlem-based predecessors.


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