“Empire” is in the tradition of films like “Scarface,” where crime pays for a while but then finally doesn’t, and a lot of people wind up with bulletholes.
John Leguizamo is typecast as a mouthy, obnoxious guy, this time a South Bronx drug distributor named Victor Rosa. He lives like a king with his girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto), even though living like a king in the South Bronx is a bit of a contradiction in terms.
It’s that contradiction that becomes the issue, in fact, as an attempt is made on his life and he realizes Carmen (and their unborn child) need a safer place to live. (The irony that criminals like himself might be why the neighborhood is unsafe is lost on Victor.) Fortunately, he meets Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard), a millionaire investment banker who is the boyfriend of Trish (Denise Richards), one of Carmen’s college acquaintances.
Jack and Victor are kindred spirits. Both are businessmen and both often act outside the law, though admittedly Victor kills a lot more people than Jack does. Thanks to Jack, Victor and Carmen are able to move away from the Bronx, and to really live the way their income permits. But as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the Bronx, but you can’t make Denise Richards act. Or something like that.
Writer/director Franc. Reyes has a heavy moralistic fable on his hands, and he puts it to good use. The direction is proficient and discreet, and Reyes doesn’t wallow in all the blood that’s spilled (and there’s a lot of it).
The film does, however, fall into complacency with the expected accusations of “you’ve changed” and “I don’t know you anymore.”
Isabella Rossellini, who plays Victor’s Colombian drug lord (drug lady?) is way over-the-top, and Denise Richards gets the best unintentional laugh near the end merely by being her usual trashy self. The rest of the performances are quite good, particularly from Leguizamo and Sarsgaard. Leguizamo is well on his way to earning some respect for his ability to breathe life into some pretty strange characters. This film doesn’t penetrate the heart, but it makes a little contact.
B- (; )