Written and directed by Franc Reyes, Empire is the story of Vic Rosa, a heroin dealer in the South Bronx. After meeting investment banker Jack, he tries to turn his lifestyle legit, but ends up showing us that you can take the drug dealer and put him in an Armani suit but you can't really change his true nature.
The premise of the film is outstanding, however, the execution does not follow the same standard. Granted, this is coming from someone who is clearly not a member of the target audiance. When I first saw the preview (while seeing the film 8 Mile) I thought the bulk of the film would be used to show Vic's character chasing after Jack. But it wasn't.
Had this been my movie, I would have spent the first 15 minutes showing Vic's South Bronx lifestyle, then spent the middle portion of the movie exploring Vic's transition to a "legitimate" lifestyle, and the final third of the movie with him going after Jack. I would have made it an interesting gangster movie with a little social critique mixed in for good measure. Unfortunately the movie is 105 minutes of warming up the engine only to turn it off.
The opening sequence is good. You get a brief understanding of how the heroin trade works, you see that Vic has a girlfriend Carmen, your introduced to many of the other players and you get a big shock that shifts the direction of the film just at the right moments. In terms of traditional structure, Reyes has it dead right up until about page 30.
But Reyes opens the doors to far too may subplots, and the film gets so tangled up in lightly touching on all of them that it never explores any of them far enough. The relationship with Carmen is interesting- but we never get a good sense of how she really feels about her boyfriend's career choice. Vic tells us that she doesn't like it, but yet she sure seems to like the $17,000 necklace he buys her.
Eventually Vic's attempt to join Jack's world creates tension, but none of that tension is developed in a meaningful way.
Jack is a key character in the film, yet we no nothing about him. Was he really an investment banker? Did he scam all his clients? Why was he scamming his clients? Why did he decide to scam Vic?Did he screw someone else over and need the money to cover his ass? And what is the deal with his girlfriend? Is she in on the scam? If she is, why is she in college? And if she is in college, how is it that she can just take off with Jack? All interesting and unexplored questions.
By far, the character I was most intrigued with was that of Joanna Menendez, who is Vic's supplier, because her backstory has got to be damn interesting.
The movie could have been an interesting paralelle between the world Vic came from and the one he wanted to be a part of, but it isn't. It skims the surface of greed in America, and how how people will do almost anything to get a piece of the American pie dream, but doesn't explore it far enough to make it interesting. Clearly Vic is looking for respect and validation in his life, and he believed that this comes from wealth and power. Carmen plays the foil, arguing that loyal friends and a community you feel comfortable in is more important.
The ending is a complete cop-out. I got sucked in by the first hour and fourty-five minutes of the movie and the world it created only to have it end in a predictable and uninteresting manner. Not that a sappy happy Hollywood ending would have been better.
Leguizamo handles the voice over portion of his role well- you can almost imagine him telling you the whole story over a couple of beers, with a hidden American Beauty sort of twist. In general, he's a solid actor- Hollywood should be writing more roles for him. Part of me truly would like to see him get an Oscar nod for this role.
For a first attempt as a director and a writer, I give Reyes a lot of credit. However, this movie could have been something more with the right effort.