review by Cynthia Fuchs, 20 December 2002
my mind on my money,
And my money on my mind.
--Snoop Dogg, "Gin and Juice"
the many crazy clichťs in Empire, Isabella Rossellini's big
fat hair has to be the loony-tunesiest. For most of Franc. Reyes'
neo-gangster movie, she remains out of sight, a mysterious
millionaire drug queen-pin known as "La Colombiana." Her
eventual appearance, more than an hour into the film, is completely
worth the wait. Seated at her patio table, her jewelry clinking and
her gloriously crooked teeth glinting in the sunlight, La Colombiana
holds forth, her hair teased high atop her head and falling into
perfect flips -- a veritable hair riot.
aside from this brief, special moment, Empire, the first film
produced by the Hispanic-focused Arenas Entertainment, is hardly
surprising. This despite the fact that the central gangster-boy, the
jangly, ambitious Vic, is played by John Leguizamo. Though he brings
his usual charismatic energy, he's up against it: a predictable plot
(essentially ripped off from Carlito's Way, on which Reyes
worked as choreographer -- check Penelope Ann Miller's pole dancing)
and weed-whacker editing (in a couple of instances, it's juts a
mystery how he gets from one scene to another).
Vic will learn that crime does not pay (and without the benefit of
Sean Penn's oh-so-memorable Carlito's hair), for a little
while, he has that cocky, got-it-all attitude. He sees himself
following in the footsteps of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and that
"geek motherf*cker" Bill Gates, and it's hard to disagree:
ruthlessness is an asset in corporate politics. Vic's got his loyal
crew -- Jimmy (Vincent Laresca), Chedda (Treach), and Jay (Rafael BŠez)
-- and swears by a familiar credo: "Keep your brothers close
and your beef even closer" (which he credits to his dead and
much adored brother, but Jimmy knows it's from The Godfather).
to Vic, the heroin dealer's existence is all about maintaining
respect and turf divisions: he has one section, the biggest section,
and others belong to Tito Severe (Fat Joe) or Hector (Carlos Leon,
better known as father to Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon). Though these
lugs end up with bullets in their heads, Vic thinks he's different,
mostly because he's more of the same. He's got the first-rate ride,
the designer jeans, the assorted slick leather jackets. True, he
still lives in the projects and has to hide his cash in nine
separate locations, but he's the big fish in his little pond. As he
puts it in his mostly redundant voiceover, he can park his $40,000
vehicle anywhere in the hood. No one messes with his property.
Vic counts his lovely chica, Carmen (Delilah Cotto), whom he notes
is smart enough to go to college but somehow not smart enough to see
that his dealing gig is a dead end; her mother (Sonia Braga)
suggests as much, but she's only on screen twice, so no one pays
much attention to her. Then again, Carmen's judgment hardly matters.
She's a plot device of the most tedious sort: her pregnancy prompts
Vic to rethink his "lifestyle," and her friendship with a
white girl opens the door to his next option.
Vic gives Carmen a $17,000 diamond necklace, she wears it to school,
where her "friend" Trish (Denise Richards working her own
big wigs) spots it and immediately decides they need to be better
friends. She invites Carmen and her ostentatious man to a party,
where they're marked by what they wear, how they walk, and how they
speak. Some skinny girls in cocktail dresses lust after Vic's
jittery tough guy affect (Leguizamo swaggers more convincingly than
Paul Muni, and more subtly than Al Pacino), but it's Trish's
boyfriend, Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), who really takes a shine to him.
and shuffling, Jack calls himself an "investment banker,"
and speaks that opaque Wall Street insiders' lingo well enough to
impress perpetual outsider Vic. The two of them agree that street
business is no "different" in effects and ethics than
boardroom business, Jack gives him free use of a Soho loft, offers
him stupid girlfriend advice, and buys him Armani suits on the
"corporate card." Vic is smitten. When Jack baits him,
suggesting that maybe he's not ready to come along for the big deal,
Vic insists, "I was born ready, baby!" Unable to contain
himself, it's not long before Vic's investing $4 million of his and
(bad idea) La Colombiana's money in a sweet "legit" deal
with the obviously odious Jack.
of Vic's keen understanding of the workings of capitalism, he's
doomed by his desire to be like Jack and be liked by Jack, or so the
film contends. Street vengeance, cruel and extravagant as it is,
comes off as less degenerate than good old white-collar brutality.
Though Vic falls for the most ridiculous ploys (Trish on his lap)
and responds in the most predictable ways (violent retribution),
Jack's presumption of privilege and overt racism ("Go back to
your ghetto!") remain Empire's primary targets. Surely,
they're worthy targets, but just as surely, there's a less hackneyed
means to take aim.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult