6 December 2002 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Making note of the fact that a mere 10 geographical miles separate the boogie-down South Bronx from button-down Wall Street, the creators of "Empire" have set out to show what happens when those seemingly diverse worlds collide.

It's an intriguing premise, and perhaps one day somebody will make a movie that actually tells that story.

In the meantime, we'll have to settle for writer-director Franc. Reyes' version, which tries to pass off a scattered, cliched approximation of the real deal.

Fronted by the charismatic John Leguizamo and attracting such icons as Isabella Rossellini and Sonia Braga to supporting roles, this debut offering from Latino-driven Arenas Entertainment certainly held some highly charged promise.

But this "Empire" will likely strike out with its target audience, which can get the same dose of melodrama for free from the average telenovela.

Gifted comic actor Leguizamo locks himself into dramatic mode as respected gangster Victor Rosa, a Little Cezar in the street pharmaceutical business who commands a significant chunk of urban turf with his customized blend of heroin, sold under the name "Empire".

Rosa's definitely at the top of his game, with a loyal posse and gorgeous fiancee Carmen (Delilah Cotto) at his side and an omnipresent gold chain with an enormous letter "G" (once belonging to his murdered Big Brother) dangling around his neck, but it's all going to seriously unravel after Carmen's new friend Trish (Denise Richards) introduces him to her investment banker boyfriend, Jack (Peter Sarsgaard).

Enticing him with a swank SoHo loft and some more "legitimate" off-shore investment opportunities for his millions in drug money, the smarmy Jack is about to play Victor in one of the oldest con games around and, as orchestrated by filmmaker Reyes, Rosa's the only person in the theater that didn't see it coming.

Perhaps he was distracted by all the glare caused by that giant "G."

A former dancer-choreographer-songwriter, Reyes tries to plug the picture's many plot holes and inconsistencies with wall-to-wall Leguizamo voice-overs and music video flourishes that contribute to its all-over-the-place style.

While Leguizamo keeps it together as best he can, it's pretty much safe to say he and the rest of the cast, including Braga as Cotto's mother and Rossellini as a powerful drug "queenpin" with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo, have done more impressive work elsewhere.

That would also extend to the Ruben Blades score, which seems to have been broken up into little sound bites in order to make room for the arsenal of Latin pop and hip-hop tunes that have been squeezed in to boost the sagging street credibility.

EMPIRE

Universal

Arenas Entertainment and Universal Pictures present a Daniel Bigel/Michael Mailer production A Franc. Reyes film

Credits:

Director-screenwriter: Franc. Reyes

Producers: Daniel Bigel, Michael Mailer

Executive producer: Robert B. Campbell

Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau

Production designer: Ted Glass

Editor: Peter C. Frank

Costume designer: Jacki Roach

Music: Ruben Blades

Music supervisor: Kathy Nelson

Cast:

Victor Rosa: John Leguizamo

Jack Wimmer: Peter Sarsgaard

Trish: Denise Richards

Jimmy: Vincent Laresca

Rafael Menedez: Nestor Serrano

Carmen: Delilah Cotto

Iris: Sonia Braga

La Colombiana: Isabella Rossellini

Chedda: Treach

Tito Severe: Fat Joe

Running time -- 100 minutes

MPAA rating: R


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