Directed by: Franc. Reyes
Starring: John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard, Denise Richards, Isabella Rossellini, Fat Joe, Treach
When a movie has a trailer containing a line that invariably draws chuckles -- if not outright laughter -- from audiences, it's generally considered a good idea to remove the offending line before the film's release (think: "She's not good enough for you, Ben!" in Swimfan). Well, Universal didn't bother removing John Leguizamo's crowd-pleaser, "I'm young, Latino and good looking," before releasing Empire, and the studio ought to have, since that line has been drawing snickers for months in the movie's trailer. Did no one notice that Leguizamo is pushing 40 and not exactly matinee-idol material? Audiences did, but Universal apparently did not.
Of course, this would have only lowered the unintentional laugh content by a small fraction, so perhaps it matters very little. Nothing short of putting this film back on the shelf from whence it came (the movie smacks of having been sitting around the vaults for a year) would really save Empire. When I started this movie, I was with two friends and a "crowd" of four others. Well, before the halfway point, the four others had fled. It was just as well, since this at least allowed those of us remaining to talk back to the screen. It's that kind of movie -- alternately tedious and laughable.
If any movie-goers out there remember Paul Morrissey's Mixed Blood (which, coincidentally, boasted a truly young Leguizamo in a minor role), they might notice a certain resemblance. The key difference is that Morrissey's film was a very black comedy while Empire is ... well, I'm not quite sure what it is! It's one of those films where the trailer gives you the entire setup -- Leguizamo is a Bronx drug dealer who gets taken by a white-collar Wall Street scam artist (Peter Sarsgaard). Unfortunately, it takes three-quarters of the film's length to get to the same point, and it hardly seems worth the trip. And what happens after that doesn't make things any better.
I suppose the details leading up to the scam are meant to be riveting, but they're not. It takes forever -- and more uses of sentences that end with the word "man" than ought to be allowed by law -- to get to the film's action scenes, and even those aren't terribly exciting. A gun battle between gangs led by Leguizamo and rapper Fat Joe is a masterpiece of bad filmmaking. Even the Serbian sharpshooters of Extreme Ops would have trouble missing the ample Mr. Joe, who spends the entire scene sitting in plain view on a sofa, but miss him these marksmen do. To make matters worse, the scene climaxes with a painfully contrived piece of plotting (something happens that you know is going to to make Leguizamo decide to get out of the mob).
The last thing this movie needed was slow-motion, but first-time director Franc. (yes, the period seems to be part of his name) Reyes isn't about to let a gimmick get by in his search for some kind of directorial style. Since he doesn't have one, he bombards us with bits and pieces of other people's. It's not surprising that he apes the casual violence of Mixed Blood, but it's just downright strange when he resorts to the flickering-light-bulb milieu of David Lynch, or drenches Leguizamo's upscale apartment in enough Ridley Scott incense smoke to kill off a couple hundred asthmatics.
Large chunks of the movie make no sense whatsoever. Leguizamo's character has enough money to invest a million bucks in one scheme, but doesn't have enough to quit the mob and move out of a crummy, roach-infested Bronx apartment? Empire turns truly bizarre with the introduction of Isabella Rossellini's drug lord. Surely, the woman can't need money this badly. Sporting a good 65 pounds of tortured hair, Rossellini is obviously modeled on Marilia Pera's outrageous Rita La Punta (!) in Mixed Blood, but with all the outrageousness carefully removed. If they were afraid it would make the whole thing unbelievable, they needn't have worried; that happened reels before Rossellini's introduction.
Try as I may, I can't think of a single good reason to see this movie, even though everyone in my group extemporaneously shouted, "Thank you!" when Leguizamo finally plugged an irritating character late in the movie. Alas, soon afterwards, writer-director Reyes thinks he's turned into Billy Wilder (see Sunset Boulevard) and that's just too much to bear.