Rather than relay the usual gangster/drug dealer clichés that Hollywood seems more than happy to produce, Empire offers something a little different. Of course, the film is still set in the Bronx and presents gritty urban life, but in the character of Vic (John Leguizamo) we’re offered something a little different. As with all characters of his type, he harbours ideas to break away from the lifestyle, though his means are hardly the stuff of cliché. Seeing himself as an entrepreneur (“like geek motherfucker Bill Gates” as he so memorably puts it during the opening voice-over), Vic takes up the opportunity to invest upon a chance meeting with hotshot Wall Street banker Jack (Peter Sasgaard).
It is this different take on the subject that makes Franc. Reyes’ film (his feature debut as both writer and director) such an interesting prospect. A product of the Bronx himself, Reyes’ manages to create as realistic a situation as possible, yet is also intelligent enough to provide the parallels between the place of his birth and uptown New York where the character of Jack resides. This intelligence is also present in the way in which he contrasts the characters and suggests that they may not be altogether that different. Indeed, as Jack states at one point, if Vic was born in the suburbs he’d be running a million dollar company, as it is he has make money by other means.
There appears, however, to be a conflict of interests between Reyes the writer and Reyes the director. Despite the script offering some shrewd commentary on the modern day drug dealer, he also feels it necessary to include clichéd slow motion gun battles and such overused devices as the pregnant girlfriend and dead brother subplots. Perhaps it’s a sign of a lack of confidence given that this is Reyes’ first film, though there is a certain disappointment as he handles the more intelligent aspects so well. Thankfully, there are as many good points as bad; he avoids the typical drug fuelled downward spiral, for example, though still cribs a number of ideas from Scorsese’s GoodFellas.
Thankfully, Empire has a number of fantastic performances at hand to sketch over a number of these flaws. John Leguizamo (who also serves as co-producer) gives perhaps his finest performance to date, making Vic a palatable character. Throughout his career, the actor has moved freely from dramatic roles to more lighter parts, though it is the former that have provided his finest work. Indeed, Empire marks a welcome move to leading man status following his fine supporting role in De Palma’s Carlito’s Way and standout performance in Spike Lee’s ensemble piece Summer of Sam. There’s a germ of both of these previous roles in Vic, though the character here is far more intelligent and slightly less volatile. Leguizamo has also imbued him with a certain ambiguity, making him a much more intriguing character than the drug dealer tag would suggest.
Part of this is due to Peter Sasgaard’s performance as Jack, however. As both characters are so indelibly linked, the film needs the one to create the other. Whereas a less adventurous film would mark Vic as the bad good and Jack as the good guy, Empire never settles for easy answers. One’s a heroin dealer, of course, and whilst Jack is seemingly legitimate, Sasgaard’s take on the character means that there always appears to be something just under the surface. Helping immensely, is the way both he and Leguizamo also provide a huge amount of charisma, making both seem immensely likeable and thereby furthering this ambiguity. (It is also worth pointing out that Sasgaard is previously best known for his turn in Boys Don’t Cry, though anyone who had seen that film will have a difficult job recognising him here - further evidence of just how fine his performance is.)
There are also a number of neat cameos to Empire’s benefit. Isabella Rossellini produces a fascinating character from her limited part as a Colombian drug dealer, and more surprisingly Denise Richards is excellent with perhaps the weightiest role of her career (it’s certainly a far cry from Valentine). Most notable however is the support given by two rappers, Treach and Fat Joe, as a gang member and drug dealer respectively. Neither performance is that great, and the parts are certainly your clichéd African-American roles, though they do prompt the viewer to compare Empire with the plethora of “ghetto gangsta” movies now being made. And whilst this film has a number of flaws which prevent it from being in the same league as those it obviously aspires to (Scarface, Casino, GoodFellas.), the very fact that it attempts to offer something different, and importantly does so in an intelligent way, places it way ahead of the likes of Turn It Up or any recent Ice-T thriller.
Picture and Sound
Presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 ratio, Empire looks stunning on disc. The colour levels seem correct throughout and the night scenes in particular are provided with the right amount of clarity. More importantly, however, the disc also offers a DTS soundtrack alongside its DD5.1 mix. Surprising, given that the film is going straight to DVD in the UK, this is most certainly the preferable option as it makes splendid use of the constant Latino and hip-hop soundtrack. That said, the 5.1 mix is fine, though not quite in the same league.
For a film which raises a number of interesting issues, one would hope that the commentary by Franc. Reyes would offer something more interesting than the reminiscing about his old neighbourhood present here. Thankfully, director of photography Kramer Morgenthan serves as co-commentator, though he often resorts to technical jargon. A disappointment, given the prospects.
Thankfully, the twenty one minute featurette, ‘Creating an Empire’, is far more satisfactory. Although hampered by some unnecessary MTV-style editing, this documentary concentrates more on the casts take on the subject than the typical “making of”. More impressively, a number of them actually have interesting things to say, something sadly lacking in the commentary.
There’s also an astonishing twenty one deleted/alternate scenes, though no information is given as to why they were excised. The visual quality of these is extremely poor, though they allow a number of character’s to develop that little bit further, indeed one or two could justifiably be reinstated into the make picture.
Also provided, though of less interest, are footage from the world premiere (lasting four minutes), the original theatrical trailer (though, be warned, this contains a number of major spoilers), an article on the film that can be accessed by those with DVD-ROM capability and an interactive soundtrack promo. The latter is an intriguing inclusion as it allows viewers to click on a track and here a brief snippet, certainly preferable to the usual 30 second promo trailers to be found elsewhere.
An admirable film despite its flaws, and one that marks Franc. Reyes as a filmmaker to watch. More impressive, however, is Universal’s decision to release the film with a welter of extras and a DTS soundtrack despite its straight to DVD status.