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EMPIRE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard, Denise Richards, Delilah Cotto, Sonia Braga, Isabella Rossellini
Director: Franc Reyes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 100 Minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2003

"Money is what lifeís all about. Getting it, losing it, needing it, loving it, and living for it.Ē

Film ***

Itís been a while since a contemporary gangster movie has graced the screen since the likes of Carlitoís Way, and while Empire may not achieve the level of De Palmaís masterpiece, it makes for both an intriguing character piece as well as a gritty action thriller. Being that this is the work of a first time writer/director, I wouldnít expect him to achieve such a brilliant filmmaking status. Letís face it, not everyone can be Quentin Tarantino. I will say this about writer/director Franc Reyes; he sure got a future as a filmmaker. The edge of the movie lies within the very style and gritty look, and Reyes has proven himself a noteworthy talent in applying the look to his films. Add to this a strong lead performance, and Empire makes for an entertaining ride.

The story consists of a very cool two part structure. The first half deals with the daily maneuvering of a local drug kingpin, and the second half sets up the drug dealerís unlikely business dealings with a Wall Street investment banker. The dealer is Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo), a charming but lethal ruler of the Bronx drug scene. Victor is a pure businessman, pulling in more money in a single week than most of us will ever see in our entire lifetime. His girlfriend, Carmen (Delilah Cotto), however, is trying to make a future for herself attending college, even if Victor can provide for her anything she wants. Her mother, Iris (Sonia Braga), is completely against the notion of her dating a drug dealer.

One day, Carmen and Victor are invited by a friend of Carmenís, Trish (Denise Richards) to a night party hosted by her and her boyfriend, Jack (Peter Sarsgaard). Jack, an investment banker on Wall Street, is living the high life. Even Victor, who pulls in just as much money as Jack does, is immediately seduced by the life that Jack leads. Soon, the two couples are double dating, as Trish and Jack welcome Carmen and Victor into their world with open arms. Victor immediately sees himself wanting to leave the drug business behind and live a more luxurious life with Carmen, and he sees that opportunity through his new acquaintance.

Jack soon proposes to Victor a life-changing offer, which is to bring in a million dollars of drug money, invest it in the stock market, and eventually become a legitimate millionaire. Victor, even being pressured with the news that Carmen is pregnant, agrees. Sounds like a remarkable plan, but it doesnít go down entirely as sound. Just a few days after giving Jack a million in cash, Victor canít seem to get in touch with him, or Trish. He soon comes to realize that he might have been played in a way he could have never expected.

For John Leguizamo, this is career highlight, and possibly the strongest dramatic performance to come from the multi-talented actor. Although heís more noted in the field of comedy, such as last yearís animated Ice Age where he applied the voice to the bumbling pea-brain Sid the Sloth, Leguizamo reminds us that he can once in a while be as intense and powerful, like he did a few years back in Summer of Sam, and Empire is among his best work to date. Another cast highlight is a totally unrecognizable Isabella Rossellini as Victorís drug boss.

Empire contains an interesting underlying theme, which is that crooks and killers exist in all walks of life, be it the ghetto or the high class. The idea of a thug being ripped off by the most unexpected kind of crook is a plot device I immediately went along with. Even if it resulted in a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, Empire is still an effecting entry in the crime genre.

Video ***

This is a much acceptable anamorphic offering from Universal. I emphasized earlier on the directorís sense of visual style, and the video transfer does a very good job of delivering the striking images and heavy lighting. The only flaw comes in some darker sequences that I felt didnít resolute as well, but donít deserve to be regarded as major distractions. All in all, a nice picture-quality performance.

Audio ****

Sound-wise, Empire is consistently alive, and the stellar 5.1 mix from Universal plays a huge part in this factor. The film includes sequences of shootouts that all sound incredible, in addition to the frequent use of music, and the numerous set pieces which provide nicely divided range of sound pick-up, and dialogue delivery is a hundred percent clear.

Features ***1/2

Some nice bonuses here, as we get a commentary by writer/director Franc Reyes and director of photography Kramer Morgenthau, a behind the scenes featurette, a number of deleted scenes, footage from the Los Angeles premiere, Music Samples from the Soundtrack, and a trailer.

Summary:

Fans of the crime movies will get their moneys worth with Empire, thanks to a strong performance from John Leguizamo, and the promise of a knockout director in newcomer Franc Reyes.