A Latino drug dealer attempts to go legit, only to discover that legitimacy isn't always what it seems.
Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a Latino drug dealer from the East Bronx and a very good businessman, in his way. He knows that money is master, and he's got a lot of it--about $4 million liquid cash, stored at the apartments of various downtrodden acquaintances whose rent he pays in exchange for the favor. Aside from occasional bloodshed, life is good, but when Victor's girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) gets pregnant, he decides to go legit and his remarkable street savvy means very little in the face of so-called legitimate business. He's incredibly naïve, and the mistakes he makes along the way cost him dearly. First, he teams up with Carmen's friend Trish's (Denise Richards) boyfriend Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), an investment banker--mistake number one. Then, because drug dealing isn't an easy profession to phase oneself out of, Victor cuts a deal with his boss, La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini), promising her a 500 percent return on a $1.5 million investment if she lets him out of his territory unscathed. That was mistake number two, as Victor discovers when Jack turns out to be significantly less legit than he seems (see mistake number one). Of course, the whole point of this mess is that you can't tell the good guys from the bad just by looking at them, especially if they're all pretty much bad to the bone.
Leguizamo, a Colombian-born, New York-based actor known since 1995's House of Buggin' for his biting standup comedy and satirical bent, attempts to prove in Empire that he can still hold his own in a dramatic role. While he makes a valiant effort, Empire is not a film that showcases his dramatic talents to their best effect. If we were to take each scene as an individual vignette, it would have to be said that the cast plays them at least passably, and sometimes exceptionally, well. But a film is more than a series of scenes strung together. In Empire, the actions and emotions the characters display in one scene are often completely unconnected to the actions and emotions they display in the next, which results in a sad lack of continuity and motivation that must be blamed less on the actors and more on the script and the direction. You know something's wrong when the actors who come off best are the ones with the most one-dimensional characters: in this case, Richards as Carmen's two-faced friend, Rossellini as the hard-hearted drug queenpin and Sarsgaard as the slick investment banker.
That brings us to the directing issue. Empire, written and directed by Franc. Reyes, is a film with something to say about the urban Latino culture and community, a group of people who get very little chance in the mainstream American media to say much of anything. He should be commended for that. It's unfortunate, however, that he uses every played-out trick in the urban-cinema book to get his message across. From casting rappers (Fat Joe and Treach from Naughty by Nature) to draw in the crowds to shooting drug deals and fight sequences with jerky handheld cameras to wallowing in creepy slow-motion funeral scenes, Empire doesn't bring anything new to the bad-drug-dealer-tries-to-go-good plotline, except perhaps an uninspired--if seldom used--punch line best encapsulated by Fat Joe, who attended the screening Hollywood.com attended and had this to say to the crowd in the theater, ''Don't be fooled by the shoot 'em up, bang bang if you use drugs or sell drugs you're gonna die.''
Empire fails to capitalize on the opportunity it had to do something different with the urban drug theme; instead, it re-creates a story we've all heard before with a Latino cast. It's an important story, and it's even more important to tell it freshly so that people will listen. Empire fails to do that.