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'Empire '

'Empire' strikes out

Friday, December 06, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If only Victor Rosa had been content to stay a humble drug dealer -- peddling his heroin in the South Bronx, occasionally shooting rivals in the head and earning millions for his formidable female boss -- none of the trouble would have happened.


RATING: R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and some sexuality

STARRING: John Leguizamo, Peter Sarsgaard

DIRECTOR: Franc. Reyes

WEB SITE: www.bigelmailer.com


Local movie showtimes


But for Vic (John Leguizamo), it was always about the money and when a smooth investment banker seduces him with talk of millions, he bites. And this street-smart dealer somehow is unable to suss out what the entire audience suspects (even during their stream of cell-phone calls): that the white boy cannot be trusted.

"Empire" is the debut picture from Arenas Entertainment, which calls itself the first major Latino film label in Hollywood. And what does it choose to make? An urban gangster film about a man who sells a customized heroin mixture called "Empire."

Sure, he is about as charismatic and sympathetic as a drug dealer can be, with the now-standard crew that's like family, but what is the message? That we've entered some sort of twisted equal-opportunity land where a gangster story can be told from the Latino point of view? I've now seen enough drug-dealing movies to last a lifetime, and "Empire" conveniently never shows the lives ruined on the other side, where the heroin addicts reside.

As "Empire" opens, Vic seems to have it together. He's got his boys, his college-student girlfriend, Carmen (Delilah Cotto), and his random acts of kindness, as when he promises a neighborhood boy a PlayStation and three games. Life starts to change when a fellow student (Denise Richards) introduces Carmen and Vic to her wealthy boyfriend, Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), who seems too good to be true.

Vic sees a chance to leave the thug life behind. But will Wall Street prove any more legit than the South Bronx and will Vic want to jettison the neighborhood, girl and friends with the lifestyle?

The talented Leguizamo, whose wide-ranging credits include Toulouse-Lautrec in "Moulin Rouge" and the voice of the wisecracking sloth in "Ice Age," makes Vic more compelling than he has any right to be. You want to root for the guy, even when you remember how he earned the cash to buy a $17,000 necklace or $40,000 truck.

Sarsgaard, very good as one of the Soviet submariners in "K-19: The Widowmaker" and one of the friends turned killers in "Boys Don't Cry," cleans up nicely and exudes a sort of James Spader-like insincerity here.

While Cotto and Richards handle the younger women's roles with varying success, the older ones are played by Sonia Braga and Isabella Rossellini. Braga is overly dramatic as Carmen's mother, while Rossellini is the big-haired La Colombiana, diva of the drug scene.

In press notes for the movie, writer-director Franc. Reyes says he grew up in the South Bronx and saw lots of people like Vic. The locations may be authentic but, in the end, "Empire" feels like a rip-off of any number of drug-dealing, double-crossing, profanity-laden, soundtrack-selling, end-with-a-twist movies we've already seen.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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