ninth symphony films - movie reviews

EMPIRE (2002)

DIRECTOR  -  franc reyes

RATED  -  r

GENRE  -  drama

LENGTH  -  90 minutes

RELEASED  -  6 december 2002

DISTRIBUTOR  -  universal pictures

OFFICIAL SITE  -  empire

ESTIMATED BUDGET  -  $3,500,000
empire - a shot from the film


buy the dvd from empire at

buy the dvd from empire at

a south bronx drug dealer tries to go straight by investing in wall street with a rich investment banker.

originally slated for a 2003 release, this movie was bumped up two months to december 2002.


picture from empire

picture from empire

picture from empire


one out of four possible stars

The way Empire comes across in its first few seconds is as an all-encompassing look at the drug world in the Bronx and the violence that is associated with that world. And in the next few seconds, the picture seems to hover closer to the personal story of lead actor, John Leguizamo's Latino drug dealer character. And throughout the rest of the film, there is a war that exists between the scope and the story of the movie. While on one hand it attempts to show the cool, badass world of underground drug trafficking, it also throws in a sense of humor that seems completely off base.

Far too often a character makes a joke of some sort that really has no effect other than lessoning the impact of the serious nature of the film. While humor has the ability to make the darkness of a film seem that much more bleak, the wise cracks and playful attitude in this film allow whatever statement the filmmakers intended to make get lost in the overly dramatic soundtrack. Putting aside for the moment the rather pumping rap oriented soundtrack, the orchestral score in this film sounds like it was plucked right out of the middle of a battle scene in a war epic.

The music completely overpowers any chance the actors have of endearing their characters to the audience. The elements of a film, such as cinematography, editing, and music, must all work together to create something where no individual element is too obvious, so that the performances can take the main stage. It is impossible to get "swept up" in a film if the cinematography is so obvious that the viewer starts noticing the camera work more than the actors' performances. And in Empire when the soundtrack booms into the scene with a giant amount of stringed instrumentation and fanfare, any focus one might have on the actors is completely blown away.

The soundtrack is in no way mediocre, but the grandeur of it seems misplaced in this film. As do other elements as well. Leguizamo's character, "Vic Rosa," has a small-time drug racket in the Bronx when the story begins, but he soon starts to wish for a more legitimate way of life once he sees the amount of money being made by a stock broker, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who he meets through a mutual friend. The film never seems to dig deep enough into either of these menís' worlds to allow the drama of the film to really grab the audience.

For example, the hard knock life of Bronx, New York is alluded to somewhat in scenes showing the neighborhood, but never is the real-life gritty feeling of the area really shown to its full advantage on film. And when the scenery moves uptown (or rather, downtown, geographically speaking), the posh lifestyle of rich Manhattan citizens is hardly vivid on camera. The straw that breaks the camel's back in this feature though is not the over-zealous score, nor is it the lack of gritty atmosphere in the Bronx scenes. What really stops this feature from being an effective piece of cinema is the climactic confrontation between Leguizamo and Sarsgaard at the end of the film.

To say that the characters are mad at one another is an understatement. But the scene comes off as being more humorous than gripping. Sarsgaard's performances as a scared white man and Leguizamo's kingpin act become too ridiculous to take seriously. And so the only alternative to actually taking the scenes seriously is engaging in laughter. When a film's most gut-wrenching scene draws more belly laughs than frightened gasps, especially when the story is meant to be serious, the film can't possibly be effective dramatically, as it is obvious the filmmakers of Empire intended it to be. Not even the screams of a panicking Denise Richards (she plays Sarsgaard's girlfriend) or the hair-stylist challenged Isabella Rossellini (playing the major drug supplier for New York) can lift the drama to reality.

Rather, the filmmakers throw in some significant music (both orchestral and mainstream) to cover up the fact that the performances in this film aren't very moving. It is hard to make a drug dealer seem very sympathetic, and though they accomplish this feat to a very small degree in the opening act of the film, John Leguizamo comes off as an ungrateful profit of other people's misery. Never is the suffering of the people addicted to Leguizamo's cocaine shown on the screen. The filmmakers expect to woo the audience with Leguizamo's fast talking speech to cover up the lack of respect the audience will have for his character when the credits start to roll.

Review by Kelsey Wyatt.

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