In regard to Franc. Reyes' engrossing and utterly uncompromising "Empire" let it be said right at the top that the protean John Leguizamo, last seen as Toulouse-Lautrec in "Moulin Rouge," gives one of the best performances of the year in a lead role in an American movie. Unfortunately, "Empire," with its combination of ethnicity and violence, too easily slips into the urban drama slot, which is not the best category for attracting prestigious nominations and awards.
While it is true that "Empire" can be described as a contemporary gangster picture, Reyes has brought to it an uncommon aura of authenticity; by no stretch of the imagination could it be described as an action movie.
"This country is all about making money," declares Leguizamo's Victor Rosa, introducing himself via voice-over as narrator. To that end Victor has established himself as one of the top drug dealers in South Bronx, and Empire is the name of the territory he has carved out for himself and his cronies.
As reflective as he is ruthless, Victor is more intelligent and more aware of the grim realities of his danger-filled way of life than his rivals; he is also honest enough to admit to himself that living on the edge is exciting, as addictive as the drugs his people sell. He is deep into piling up cash for its own sake and accepts that this is how his life is going to be.
For the past year, however, he has been seeing a university student from the neighborhood, Carmen (Delilah Cotto), who has struck up an acquaintance with a classmate, Trish (Denise Richards), a glamour girl with a taste for the fast lane and as worshipful of money as Victor. In no time Trish has introduced Victor to her boyfriend, Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), a smooth, young Wall Street wheeler-dealer who promises Victor a terrific return on his investment. Victor knows he's taking a leap of faith in trusting Jack, but to him it seems a chance worth taking.
As "Empire's" plot shifts into high gear it also starts revealing in earnest how much more thoughtful and perceptive it is from the usual genre movies about ambitious ghetto criminals.
First of all, Victor is too smart to imagine that he can make that one last big killing and get out. He knows the supplier to him and his rivals, the striking-looking and super-tough La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini), will always demand a cut from whatever he undertakes. Yet Victor sees a way of leaving South Bronx crime behind in favor of Wall Street legitimacy.
This is the heart of the film and the source of Reyes' sharpest observations as Victor tries to leave the 'hood behind for the Soho high life, exchanging black leather jackets for Armani suits. At the same time Victor's bold attempt at a transition from one world to another, geographically so near but light years away in many crucial ways, allows Leguizamo to express Victor's wide-ranging reactions and conflicts, the first of which being that while he wishes he would never have to set foot again in the South Bronx, Carmen remains rooted to its upside -- its warm, supportive, family-oriented Latino culture exemplified by her strong, earthy mother (Sonia Braga).
As a first film "Empire" is admirably confident and assured, and it has that same great rich look cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau brought to his collaborations with director George Hickenlooper. It certainly shows that both Leguizamo and Reyes know the territory they cover so perceptively first-hand, and they understand well how tempting yet treacherous a life of crime can be for young men who see little alternative in trying to get ahead. In turning to crime Victor has accepted an invitation to a lifetime of paranoia and danger, yet Leguizamo persuades us to hope that Victor, for all the wrongs he has committed in the name of survival and dominance, makes good his escape to a better life.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and some sex.
Times guidelines: Adult themes, too violent for kids.
John Leguizamo...Victor Rosa
Peter Sarsgaard...Jack Wimmer
Isabella Rossellini...La Colombiana
An Arenas Entertainment and Universal Pictures presentation. Writer-director Franc. Reyes. Producers Daniel Bigel and Michael Mailer. Executive producer Robert B. Campbell. Co-executive producers Evan Lamberg and Steven C. Beer. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. Editor Peter C. Frank. Music Ruben Blades. Music supervisor Kathy Nelson. Costumes Jacki Roach. Production designer Ted Glass. Art director Frank White III. Set decorator Jacqueline Jacobson-Scarfo. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. In general release.