Movie review, 'Empire'

HealthMedicineCrime, Law and JusticeDenise RichardsJohn LeguizamoPeter SarsgaardCrime

If Brian De Palma's "Scarface" were an after-school special starring John Leguizamo, it'd be called "Empire."

Instead of Al Pacino's Cuban refugee Tony Montana, however, "Empire" gives us Leguizamo as Victor Rosa, the kingpin of a Bronx drug ring. Other dealers have their own brands of designer smack to peddle, but Rosa's pure blend, called "Empire," reveals his ambitions.

"Selling...competition...that's what this country is built on," he says. "It's all about one thing - making money."

He wants wealth, security and flashy jewelry, but he doesn't see the connection between his "business" and a junkie mother's propensity for stealing her grade-schooler's money to feed her addiction. Rosa agrees to buy the kid a PlayStation 2 anyway, then threatens the mother that he'll check up on the machine and her son.

Director Franc Reyes' freshman effort can't escape references to De Palma's "Carlito's Way," which Reyes worked on as a choreographer and Leguizamo acted in, playing a small role. While Reyes seeks his own ambitious style, he can't quite step out from under De Palma's shadow and thematic choices. Everything from the voiceover narration to the final frame in "Empire" looks and feels like a low-budget hybrid of "Scarface" or "Carlito's Way."

Peter Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry") plays Jack, Rosa's social twin in the WASPy world of Wall Street who offers him a way out of the Bronx and into a "legitimate" lifestyle. But the pair may be more alike than Rosa knows or would care to admit is healthy. Sarsgaard and Leguizamo manage to turn in strong performances even though they're led hip-deep into cliches.

Despite some close calls, Denise Richards somehow keeps her clothes on in a familiar femme-fatale role as Jack's girlfriend. The seldom vain Isabella Rossellini also shows up for a cameo as a high-haired and heavily eye-shadowed Colombian drug czar whose cosmetic commitment to the part rivals Sean Penn's Afro in "Carlito's Way."

But here again, we have anachronistic fashions paraded in front of a hip score and elegantly choreographed violence. Just like "Carlito's Way." Seldom has a tribute been this transparent or derivative.

2 stars (out of 4) "Empire"
Written and directed by Franc Reyes; edited by Peter C. Frank; art direction by Frank White III; produced by Daniel Bigel and Michael Mailer. A Universal Studios release; opens Friday, Dec. 6. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: R (Strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and some sexuality).
Victor Rosa - John Leguizamo
Jack - Peter Sarsgaard
Trish - Denise Richards
Jimmy - Vincent Laresca La Colombiana - Isabella Rossellini

Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.

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