Empire (2002) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and some sexuality
Running Time: 90 min.

Cast: John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard, Delilah Cotto, Denise Richards, Vincent Laresca, Isabella Rossellini, Sonia Braga, Delilah Cotto, Nestor Serrano, Treach, Rafael Baez, Fat Joe
Director: Franc. Reyes
Screenplay: Franc. Reyes
Review published December 9, 2002

This is writer/director Franc. Reyes very first film, and unfortunately the amateurishness shows. That's not to say he doesn't have any talent, because there's ample evidence of it in the writing and his sense for some visual flair. Empire doesn't fail because it lacks for good writing or talented directing, but because it can't deliver during the pivotal moments where real guts and emotion are required. Scenes that involve the death of a character are staged without finesse, evoking some chuckles when none should have been because they just didn't look right. There are also a couple of scenes where an actor is required to express anger or extreme sadness, yet the tears don't come and the rage is done with the unconvincing look of self-consciousness. In short, this feels like a rough draft for a feature film done with a minimal budget, where the first take for any scene was the only one to use.

John Leguizamo (Spawn, Romeo + Juliet) carries much of the film on his shoulders, and he does give a credible performance, even though he would seem to be miscast at first glance as one of the Bronx's toughest drug dealers, Vic Rosa. He has dubbed the name of the narcotic he deals "Empire," generating repeat customers that seek him time and again because of its purity. As good as the money is, Vic thinks he can make more by going legit in the financial world, and seeks to get out of the crime biz now that a baby is on the way. Through a friend of his lady, he is introduced to Jack (Sarsgaard, Another Day in Paradise) a wall-street insider who is willing to let Vic in on some incredible deals.  However, to really get in on the big action, he will need a favor from an old powerful friend, who wants him to tie up the loose ends which resulted from his disappearance from the streets.

There's plenty of good music and also nice locale work that surrounds the colorful characters, putting the elements into play for potentially decent drama, if the actors are up to the task.  They aren't.  Most of the performances are wooden and flat, with such actors as Sonia Braga (Angel Eyes, The Rookie), Isabella Rossellini (Big Night, Blue Velvet), and Denise Richards (The World is Not Enough, Wild Things) miscast in their respective supporting roles.  One of the bigger problems stems from a lack of charisma among most of the cast, in particular Sarsgaard providing a weak foil to the much more dynamic Leguizamo.  Franc. Reyes does have a knack for character development, yet the overall feel of Empire is of a retread gangster opera, and without realistic gunplay or quality acting, this feels more like one of those films shot on a $7,000 budget than a major motion picture release.

Empire is only worth a look if you are a huge fan of Leguizamo, as he is about the only player who delivers amid the substandard level of the production.  Otherwise, it's an sloppily-made waste of time.  This is one Empire that fell before it ever had a chance to rise.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo