“Empire” is not only the title of Franc Reyes’s debut filmmaking attempt; it is also the name of a special blend of heroin that dealer Vic Rosa (John Leguizamo) peddles on the gritty streets of the South Bronx. Vic is a slick dude who says “Yo dawg” more times in one scene than Eminem does in all of “8 Mile,” and his goods could not have been more aptly named. With his rivals Tito and Jose selling heroin with dope-ass names like “Dancing Queen” and “Severe,” Vic’s stuff is a not-so-subtle symbol of his inner desire to escape the gangsta scene and make it as a legit businessman. Did anyone say American Dream?
In a shoddy and ultimately formulaic attempt to make room for Latinos in the Italian-dominated vault of gangster moviedom, Reyes – who also wrote the film – gives us Vic’s character mostly via voice-overs, ala “Goodfellas.” Vic tells us that it’s all about money. Reyes tries to make the criminal likeable through a series of recognizably redeeming factors: His girlfriend is a serious student getting her B.A., he pines away for his dead brother who was “the man” when he was alive and his ultimate decision to get off the streets happens when one of his crew members accidentally shoots the young son of one of his rivals, Tito (Fat Joe). All of this is well and good, except that it’s fantastically uninteresting. Logistics questions abound, including the obvious obliteration of any suggestion that Vic does, or has ever done, heroin. How many drug dealers never test their own product? Apparently the real good guys are totally clean. Yeah right.
Vic’s chance to get off the streets happens when he meets Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), an investment banker who seems eager to turn Vic’s drug money into a legit stash of cash. Why this unlikely union occurs is never explained, and it does seem highly unlikely. But if it’s good for the plot, hey, why explain it? Ultimately, through a series of murders and betrayals, Vic finds himself alone in his flashy new SoHo loft, pining away for the old days. So are we. Because a film like “Empire” – that wants so badly to crack into a genre where films like “Scarface” and “Carlito’s Way” have set the standards for quality – had better have something unique to bring to dinner. What Reyes comes up with falls somewhere in between Taco Bell and Chi-Chi’s.
Stale plot lines and overused clich