Vic Rosa (John Leguizamo) is young, Latin and good looking. At least according to himself. He is a successful drug distributor who controls much of the Bronx, and is an ambitious cat, unfortunately more so than the movie itself. He narrates throughout the entire movie, which is an interesting touch, but not everything is seen from his point of view, which would have been a unique feature to this movie that can't escape clichés.
He explains that the Bronx is divided into territories. Each territory is owed by a different lord who owns his own brand of narcotics. For Vic, his drug is called "Empire" and it is the best available. The other distributors play minor roles in the movie. Although heavily advertised, Fat Joe enters and exits before the second act. He plays Tito, a hard-rival to Vic's gang, and is the most one-dimensional character I've seen this year. On the outside, he's a shotgun toting drug dealer, but on the inside he is a caring father to a young son; a scenario I've seen so many times, it is no longer interesting.
"Empire" started off on the right track, but quickly derailed. Franc Reyes's gritty and unforgiving saga of a hoodlum attempting to make a better man of himself is one we've seem too many times. It's violent, but that's the standard minimum for this kind of movie. It moves slow, and doesn't dig into the meat until the last 15 minutes.
The premise, as shown in the trailer, looked intriguing. Vic is man making money in an illegitimate business who gets the opportunity to make more money in a legitimate business. He meets a new 'white guy,' Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), an investment banker who tells his girlfriend (Denise Richards), "If he (Vic) would have been born in the suburbs, he would be owning a Fortune 500 company.." Jack promises Vic a return of somewhere near $6 million for a $1.5 million investment. Vic finally gets the money from his loan shark, La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini), and makes the deal. But is Jack that impressed with Vic, or is this a scheme to take advantage of Vic's wealth?
Like Fat Joe's character, Jack is also a 'made in Hollywood' figure. He's your typical young Wall Street stud with a mysterious background. His character had to also wait on the sidelines until the very end, just like the main plot.
Along the way, little sub-plots that weren't in the trailers complicate matters--such as La Colombiana asking Vic to kill off a good friend, having to tell his crew that he is leaving the 'family' for a better life, getting into fights with his pregnant girlfriend, and so forth. When wanting to inquire about his investment, Vic calls up his pal Jack only to find out the number is dead, and Jack has vanished; him and all of Vic's, or should I say La Colombiana's money.
By the time Jack does disappear, the movie is almost over. Vic then comes up with a way to track him down to seek revenge. Does he? That's left for you to find out. The climax is rushed, crammed, and takes place all in the last five minutes. If you just watch the trailer, then watch the ending of the movie, you will probably have a better experience then if you sit through the entire film.
John Leguizamo is a talented actor who had a good supporting cast working with him. Franc Reyes would have had something going if only his story had been more refreshing. As a first time writer/director, he will be worth following, and has the potential to create something big in the near future. "Empire" came close, but simply not close enough. If it wasn't so predictable, if it wasn't so unoriginal, "Empire" could have been what it wasn't.