Empire

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Empire

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Empire

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Perhaps it's a sign of the times that the least honorable of Empire's cold-blooded drug dealers, murderers, thieves, and crime kingpins wears Armani suits and dispenses New Economy buzzwords rather than bullets. A derivative gangster drama with a culture-clash twist, the film stars John Leguizamo as a successful drug dealer who patterns himself after Ted Turner and takes great pride in his supposed business savvy, although he still relies on the standard battery of vicious beatings and executions. As he explains in an opening narration that stops just short of rattling off Empire's characters' social-security numbers (only the first of many nods to Goodfellas), Leguizamo sells Empire, a unique blend of heroin that appeals to junkies' innate sense of brand loyalty. A series of run-ins with business foes leaves him eager to leave the street game, and when he meets the aforementioned Armani enthusiast (Boys Don't Cry's Peter Sarsgaard), he thinks he's found his path to respectability. But Sarsgaard proves even less trustworthy than Leguizamo's underworld rivals, and after he absconds with the latter's millions, Leguizamo goes looking for revenge. About half a dozen subplots fill out the rest of Empire's overheated running time, providing little breathing room for characterization. On the surface, the film's clash between urban desperation and yuppie arrogance recalls the far superior Changing Lanes. But where that film reveled in the moral ambiguity of two essentially decent but conflicted protagonists pitted against each other, Empire devolves into a bloody revenge thriller with an ending as primitive as its opening is convoluted. As an upscale con man who hides behind an Ivy League façade, Sarsgaard oozes WASPy disdain. His studied coldness acts as an antidote to Leguizamo's squirrelly excitability, giving their scenes together a queasy tension that Empire doesn't exploit. As the film opens, Leguizamo discusses how each dealer sells a slightly different kind of heroin under a colorful name, a detail that seems appropriate to a movie that shoves the same old gangster clichés into a new package.

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