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IN SHORT: a low rent Godfather wannabe. [Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and some sexuality. minutes]
Here's a problem that some of us wish we faced from time to time: You're a high powered businessman who lets all the grunts do the dirty work and take the bum rap if they get caught while you stockpile millions of dollars of cash money in safes all over the city. It's working capital that you can't work with because of all those pesky Fed rules about larger than average cash bank deposits. So, what's a drug lord to do? You find a white collar Wall Street type who doesn't mind geting his hands dirty with the real work of laundering cash.
Shoddily made, or ineptly directed by professional choreographer and song writer Franc Reyes, Empire's credits include one "script consultant" which we find most interesting since 95% of the film is shot with voice over narration by Leguizame and the remaining scenes all come across as improvisations. We know a low budget production when four out of five scenes are shot without sound and then have everything -- mostly that voice over -- dubbed in. It is a film whose pacing is extraordinarioly bad and whose sudden emotional shifts come across unexpectedly. We can't think of a better example of how to misuse Robert McKee's scriptwriting principles.
The South Bronx is not the greatest place to conceive of a Horatio Algetr story but if you're goinna do it, you're gonna make it a story about drug dealing. Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) is our Alger, who has watched his older brother rise and fall on the street and now controls a couple of square blocks of territory, on which he sells his special product called "Empire". Sure you could jog over a couple of blocks to pick up other heroin blends tradenamed "Dancing Queen," "Severe" or "Exorcist" but there's no purer blend of Horse than Empire. Victor and his three dealers easily pull in 30-45K a day, which makes La Columbiana (Sonia Braga), their wholesaler, very happy.
Victor stashes most of his cash, though he makes sure that his girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) is well taken care of with clothing and jewelry. Of course, Victor tells us right up front what we already know. Mess up in this biz and you die. Vic has dreams and, when he is forced to face up to his own mortality, girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) intros Vic to her new friend, Trisha (Denise Richards). Trisha's main man, Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), works on a different side of the sleazy street. In this case that street is called Wall and Jack is an investment banker and, for a couple of million dollars, Jack says he could make Vic rich.
Needless to say that white collared, upstanding young banker is . . . nope, we don't need to say it. We will pause here to remind y'all that the stock market bubble burst in the late 90s and many investment banks crumbled in the Fall. Add to this on big, beautiful night time shot of the World Trade Center sticking way up in the New York sky and let your brain reset the calendar for you. The film doesn't spend dime one on a subtitle stating something like "1998". We suspect that Empire has been sitting in a film can on a shelf for a while.
We're probably wrong but, yes, Empire is that bad.
We like Leguizamo's work but you're better off renting one of his performance monologs than shelling out for this "fixed in the mix" voiceover dominated flick. It's a sure sign of amateur or (at minimum) a lack of confidence in ones skills as a filmmaker to cut the sound budget and rely on overdubs -- for some reason the idea has fixed itself in the minds of some producers and/or directors that you don't have to record live sound -- that it's cheaper to do all that work after the fact, in a studio. We've seen that in our own former career and argued the point until we were blue in the face. Always the director thanked us afterwards. Do it right the first time, filmmaker wannabes. You can't fix it after the fact any cheaper than doing it right in the first place.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Empire, he would have paid . . .
because Empire isn't a total loss. Close, but not total.
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