When you stop and think about it, the similarities between Italian mobsters and urban gangsters -- as filmmakers commonly portray them -- are really quite astounding. For every gold chain stuck in a mobster's chest hair, there seems to be a corresponding gold medallion slung around some gangster's neck. For every Cadillac, there's a Lincoln Navigator. In place of the Tommy gun, there's the Glock. It's a comparison that writer and director Franc Reyes is all too keen on making in his debut film, Empire.
Played by John Leguizamo, Victor Rosa is a Latino gangsta with all the ambition of a young Godfather and all the attitude of a taller Joe Pesci. He spends his days violently whacking errant drug dealers and monitoring the sales of his own designer "street pharmaceutical" not so subtly labeled Empire -- which is exactly what Vic thinks he's building in his little bit of the South Bronx. But when his girlfriend (Delilah Cotto) announces that she's pregnant, he thinks it might be time to go legit.
Now, as any good thug knows, you can never leave the Family (or the gang, in this case). But Vic is a businessman at heart, so after a hotshot investment banker (Peter Sarsgaard) helps him make a fast $2 million in the stock market, Vic decides to make an offer that his supplier (Isabella Rossellini) can't refuse: If he and his banker pal Jack can more than quadruple her $3.5 million investment in six months, he's free to go. If not, he's as good as dead.
I didn't say he was a smart businessman.
It's not a bad plot; but, unfortunately, the movie is nowhere near as refined as all the classic dramas it borrows from. For one, it's never quite clear why Vic trusts Jack in the first place. Sure, there's something about Sarsgaard's prep-school looks that resembles Bill Gates -- a figure we know Vic compares himself to, alongside Rockefeller and Carnegie. But for a shrewd gangster who's supposed to be wise to the ways of the world, the partnership happens a bit too abruptly. It's almost as if there's a scene or two missing.
Likewise, there could have been more focus on Jack's relationship with his girlfriend (Denise Richards). When she shows up at Vic's door to check up on him and ends up trying to seduce him, it's unclear whether she was sent for this reason explicitly or if she took it upon herself to add in that last part. And when she finally receives a bullet to the head, it's hard to see why this upsets Jack as much as it does.
As for the violence, Reyes does manage to pull together a couple of good scenes. For instance, a surprise gunshot early on does a good job of making your heart jump. Later, when one of Vic's crewmembers fires at a scurrying sound in the corner, there's a sense of dread that hits you when you realize who just got shot.
That said, neither of the scenes are enough to overcome the equal number of uninspired gunfights with their slow motion effects and comical nonsense. During one such whacking, a portly dealer manages to fight back without ever leaving his couch. At one point, he pulls a lever and a spare shotgun pops up from behind his seat. While this provides a cheap laugh, it does little to help what is otherwise a fairly serious moment.
It's this sort of ambiguity that keeps Empire from being the urban Casino or GoodFellas that it aspires to be. It works as a shoot-em-up flick, but doesn't quite reach the next level. If you should be convinced to go see this one, expect to forget it before you're out of the theater.
She's a little teapot.