[Screen It]

(2002) (John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard) (R)

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Drama: A gangster tries to transition from dealing drugs to making millions in the stock market, but learns that such a move isn't without its own complications and dangers.
In the South Bronx, Victor Rosa (JOHN LEGUIZAMO) is a gangster who fancies himself a self-made man via his dealing of a heroin mixture he calls "Empire." Working with his associates Jimmy (VINCENT LARESCA), Chedda (TREACH) and Jay (RAFAEL BAEZ), Victor deals for the powerful La Colombiana (ISABELLA ROSSELLINI) and her brother Rafael Menendez (NESTOR SERRANO). Occasionally, turf wars break out between him and La Colombiana's other dealers, including Tito (FAT JOE) and Hector (CARLOS LEON).

When he's not dealing or reaping the benefits of his lucrative business, Victor sees his live-in girlfriend and current college student Carmen (DELILAH COTTO), whose mother, Iris (SONIA BRAGA), doesn't approve of her daughter seeing a drug dealer.

It's at Baruch College where Carmen meets fellow student Trish (DENISE RICHARDS) who throws a party where Victor meets her investment banker boyfriend Jack (PETER SARSGAARD). The two men realize they have much in common despite their differences, and it's not long before Jack offers to get Victor and his drug money involved in the market.

With a baby on the way, Victor is enticed by the thought of going straight but remaining in the money business. Accordingly, he starts to make his move to break free from his gang as well as La Colombiana. Yet, he finds the divorce more difficult than he imagined and soon finds himself treading in some rather deep waters. From that point on, Victor has to figure out how to deal with the various problems and dangerous situations that arise.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Back at the beginning of the old TV drama "Dragnet," each episode started with the comment, "The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent." The show, of course, was about the authorities who busted the bad guys.

In the new movie, "Empire" -- a film about the criminals rather than the cops - its prologue should be, "The story you are about to see has been told before. The names have been changed to protect the guilty." It's true, gritty dramas about drug dealers and their lifestyles are a dime a dozen and there are only so many ways to tell such a story.

Yet, novice writer/director Franc. Reyes has lifted so much of his plot and approach from Brian De Palma's far better "Carlito's Way" that Sgt. Friday and company would have no problem nabbing him. After all, the filmmaker was on the set of that 1993 film choreographing the club sequences (and apparently taking copious notes about how to copy the film).

In both pictures, a Latino gangster decides to get out of the drug dealing business and go straight, but has a hard time doing so. Throw in a pregnant girlfriend, unforgiving criminal types, persistent voice over narration from the protagonist, a bloody ending and the presence of actor John Leguizamo and you'll start getting that déjà vu feeling all over again.

Of course, the fine details are different and the Latino dealer this time is played by an actor of that ethnicity (Leguizamo) rather than one faking it (Al Pacino). Nevertheless, any such picture has to stand on its own and should hopefully stand out from the crowd. That's particularly true when facing the inevitable and unavoidable comparisons to the film from which it so liberally borrows.

Unfortunately, Reyes' greenness shows, as his film doesn't feel as if it were left in the cinematic oven long enough. The first indication that things aren't done is the inclusion of all of that narration supplied by the protagonist (including some supposedly poignant passages at the end that come off as goofy).

While some such narration can work if handled just right - not necessarily in "CW" but certainly in other film of this genre such as "Goodfellas" - it usually comes off as an easy and unimaginative way to deliver exposition and character traits and motivation.

Such is the case here as Leguizamo ("Ice Age," "Collateral Damage") tells us all about his character and state of mind rather than us seeing or experiencing that for ourselves. Although it gets those points across, the tactic feels amateurish at best. The bigger problem, however, is that I didn't buy Leguizamo in the part, which also holds true for Isabella Rossellini ("Roger Dodger," "The Impostors") as his supposedly more ruthless boss. Both seemed to be playing the parts rather than being the characters, and the difference shows.

Other problems include uneven dramatic momentum and an executed story that simply isn't as interesting or engaging as it needs to be. Perhaps that's due to the lack of novelty, but whatever the case, the plot is rather boring and some of its developments come off as unbelievable or not fleshed out enough.

There's not enough believable motivation for the protagonist to go straight or then need to play the market to do so (after all, he has several million dollars lying around). Had Reyes managed to imbue the story and character with the allure of easy money as occurred in "Wall Street," then perhaps I would have bought into what's presented. As it stands, most everything feels like a novice screenwriter's array of necessary plot constructs.

Performances from the likes of Vincent Laresca ("K-PAX," "Before Night Falls"), Treach ("Love and a Bullet," "Jason's Lyric"), Rafael Baez ("Shanghai Noon," "Sea of Love") and Nestor Serrano ("City by the Sea," "Showtime") as additional gangsters as well as Peter Sarsgaard ("K-19: The Widowmaker," "The Salton Sea"), Denise Richards ("The World is Not Enough," "Drop Dead Gorgeous"), Delilah Cotto ("Personals," "Girl 6") and Sonia Braga ("Angel Eyes," "The Milagro Beanfield War") range from decent to mediocre. Few are memorable, however, no doubt due to the banal script and character development (or lack thereof).

If you want to see this story done better, check out De Palm's film. If you're hankering to see it with a Latino lead, director and from the first "major Latino film label in Hollywood" (as the press kit states), you might want to wait until the next time all of those ducks are in a row. Not atrocious, but certainly far from being as good as it might have been, "Empire" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 2002 / Posted December 6, 2002

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