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2002 - R - 90 Mins.
Director: Franc Reyes
Producer: Steven Beer, Daniel Bigel, Chris Connolly, Michael Mailer, Jill Footlick
Written By: David Kendall
Starring: John Leguizamo, Denise Richards, Peter Sarsgaard, Fat Joe, Isabella Rossellini
Review by: Joe Rickey
A wannabe gritty and violent drama and a rare star vehicle for John Leguizamo, Empire could have been such a powerful crime drama but it is not to be.

Empire tells the story of a South Bronx drug dealer who gets the chance to leave his life of crime after meeting a Wall Street broker, but finds that in the crime world no one can be trusted and that he might have to wage a personal war against those who have wronged him. The film stars John Leguizamo, Denise Richards, and Peter Sarsgaard and Franc Reyes directs in his debut.

For years John Leguizamo has appeared in countless films playing the comic relief. From Collateral Damage, 2002’s terrorist themed thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to the box office bomb comedy What’s the Worst that Could Happen starring Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito, he has not appeared as the star in many films. Empire gives him the spotlight for once.

Empire had the potential to be a solid journey into the crime underworld with a charismatic lead and solid production values. The main problem with the film is that it carries little dramatic weight because its story is told in such a clichéd fashion that one can’t help but feeling a little déjà vu if they have seen a crime drama before. The plot of a criminal attempting to right himself has been seen already too many times in such films as last year’s Heist. Granted, the specifics of Empire are quite different than the old-fashioned ways of Heist. Still, the formula doesn’t deviate that much except for the fact that the lead in Empire decides to retaliate against his enemies in flourishes of graphic violence. The at times cringe-inducing dialog doesn’t help any either.

Compounding the problem is that the film becomes incoherent at times because inexperienced director Reyes handles the action in a wholly unprofessional way. He goes so much for style over substance that you can’t even tell who shot who at times. Slow motion during the gunfights is an also commonly used technique that Reyes is so fascinated with that it is used way too often in the film. The film almost adapts an unruly and chaotic nature at times. Not helping matters is the shallow acting by Richards and the rest of the supporting cast. Richards is nothing more than a personified object and Sarsgaard overacts throughout the film. The music also doesn’t help because it is a constant mix of rap tunes that grow tiresome and grating after they are present for a long period of time.

The big positive with Empire is that it is graced with an energetic lead performance by Leguizamo. He is full of energy and does well with even the most clichéd lines in the script to make them sound better than they were on paper. The film also has some solid cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau who gives the film a stylish look and feel. Too bad the inept direction and script by Reyes undermines the good performance by Leguizamo and Morgenthau’s cinematography. In the end, Empire is a failure at a mafia styled drama crossed with a thriller.

Movie Guru Rating
Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better. Disappointing.  Had the right ingredients and should have been better.
  2 out of 5 stars

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