'Empire': Gangster Tale Sleeps With the Fishes

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 6, 2002

A vivid, vital movie has been made about New York's underworld, a film that pounds and pulses with the brutal life force of young men living on the edge of unlimited potential and early death.

That film is "GoodFellas," and it is available at your nearest video store. You might also pick up "Mean Streets" while you're at it. By no means be fooled into seeing "Empire," a retread of material already thoroughly plumbed by Martin Scorsese.

Such invidious comparisons are required in assessing a movie that begs, borrows and outright steals from its more illustrious predecessors. "Empire's" writer-director, Franc. Reyes, is a onetime choreographer and sometime composer of pop songs; what he knows about making movies he clearly gleaned from studying Scorsese, as well as such Scorsese acolytes as Spike Lee, with the voraciousness of a magpie.

In "Empire," which stars John Leguizamo as a Bronx heroin dealer named Victor Rosa, Reyes makes heavy use of Scorsese's signature camera movements, slow-motion effects and jittery editing. He surely steals nearly every play in the "GoodFellas" book, from the opening introductions of the film's seedy characters to a scene in which Victor leaves his SUV parked on a dangerous Bronx street. No one touches the car, he explains in the film's tiresome voice-over. "And you know why? Respect." At that point one half-expects Tony Bennett to start belting "Rags to Riches."

"Empire" is being advertised as something of a gangster sting movie, wherein Victor's character is hoodwinked by a smarmy Wall Street investor named Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard, in a terrifically fey performance) and then gets back at the rich guy using street smarts and South Bronx muscle. It turns out that Victor is hoodwinked not only by Wimmer but by the latter's voluptuous girlfriend, Trish (Denise Richards, whose Jeanne Moreau pout seems to get more pillowy in each movie). But sadly, "Empire" has next to nothing to do with the mind games of its main characters and much more to do with a bunch of beefy guys shooting at each other – quite sloppily – with very big guns.

Leguizamo is a gifted comedian and a chameleonlike actor, but his talents are wasted in this portrait of New York greed, which is as tiresome as it is anachronistic (the World Trade Center is still intact in the movie, as is the dot-com boom). And what in heaven's name is Isabella Rossellini doing tarted up as a Colombian drug dealer? Or Sonia Braga as a haggard-looking matriarch? The best part of "Empire" is Ruben Blades' swinging, swelling musical score, which is interspersed with some good Latin pop songs. ("Empire" is the first release of Universal's Arenas label, dedicated to tapping the Latino audience.)

Still, the endless posing and fake gunplay and ginned-up violence and acrid profanity have an effect every bit as soporific as Victor's most sought-after product. If you find yourself nodding off in the first half-hour, just chalk it up to being in the "Empire" state.

EMPIRE (R, 90 minutes) Contains violence, pervasive profanity, drug content and some sexuality. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company