Empire

2002, Movie, R, 90 mins

Review

EMPIRE
starstarstarstar
An ambitious, street-level drug dealer hooks up with a slick investment banker and learns that a man with a briefcase can steal more than a 100 men with guns. Life is sweet for Victor Rosa (mambomouth John Leguizamo), aside from the fact that his college-girl girlfriend Carmen's (Delilah Cotto) mother (Sonia Braga) has never forgiven him for making her daughter a dealer's honey. He's got respect in his neighborhood; a steady connection in La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini); a top-notch crew composed up of loyal buddies Jimmy (Vincent Larasca), Chedda (Treach) and Jay (Rafael Baez); branded product in the heroin mix he calls "Empire"; a prime piece of the South Bronx action and a working relationship with the three dealers whose turf borders his. But Victor is restless, and Carmen unwittingly opens the door to his downfall. Carmen's classmate Trish (Denise Richards, reprising her White She-Devil role from UNDERCOVER BROTHER) invites the couple to a party thrown by her boyfriend, Wall Street hotshot Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard). Vic is afraid of getting the high hat from Trish's friends, but Jack puts him at ease by opining that anyone who's made it in business succeeded by screwing someone else. Soon Vic and Jack are thick as thieves, and Vic has let Jack invest all his liquid capitol (which is to say everything he has, since banks and ill-gotten gains don't mix). Trish and Jack also introduce the couple to Manhattan's chic, monied nightlife and offer Vic and the now-pregnant Carmen rent-free digs in the swanky SoHo loft they bought as an investment. Vic starts acting all white, ignoring his homies and dressing like a Prada model. "He won't even eat Spanish food anymore," the distraught Carmen wails to Trish. There's a reason why these fairy-tale contrivances seem too good to be true, and the fact that insistent voice-over narrator Vic is pulling a Joe Gillis will come as no great surprise. Therein lies the problem: Writer/director Franc. Reyes's slickly competent first feature is stunningly derivative. It's not that choreographer/songwriter Reyes, who caught the filmmaking bug working as an advisor on Brian De Palma's CARLITO'S WAY (1993) doesn't know the territory — he's from South Bronx neighborhood depicted in the film. It's that from LITTLE CAESAR (1931) to PAID IN FULL (2002), this tale has been told and retold; the races and rackets change, but the song remains the same. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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