Empire telegraphs trouble to the audience from its directorial credit in the opening minutes of the film: "directed by Franc.Reyes." This hubristic punctuation comes to no good end. To his credit, Reyes prolongs the inevitable, making watchable a story on the road to narrative perdition.
Beginning with the notion of brand-name drug sales and strategies for turf control, Empire teases that it could be a low-rent Casino, an organized crime drama with street cred. John Leguizamo plays Victor Rosa, a druglord who proudly wears a gold G around his neck and scoffs at the stupidity of the simple-minded dealers who orbit him. Fancying himself as better than the rest, and seeing the dark at the end of the tunnel, Victor allows himself to be seduced by a pointedly white Wall Street investment banker played by Peter Sarsgaard. This sweet-talking guy laughs off the divide between blue and white-collar criminals, foreboding doom to everyone in the theatre but Rosa. One line fromThe Godfather III succinctly defined this whole subgenre of crime movies: "Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in." Indeed, Empire includes a jokey allusion to The Godfather, but it's a mistake to remind folks eating fast food that they could be eating filet mignon.
Leguizamo—also an executive producer on the film—goes a long way toward making it palatable with his inviting humanity. He projects intelligence (if not prudence), tenderness, quick anger, charm, fear, and anguish in brief but spot-on jags, as the script requires. Sarsagaard does the best he can, writing neatly on a blank slate, while Denise Richards, as his girlfriend, further mires herself into "skanky ho" territory. Vincent Laresca hits some interesting beats with the confused character of Rosa's first lieutenant. The rest of the cast, including Delilah Cotto, Fat Joe, Treach, Isabella Rosselini, and Sonia Braga barely register, marking time and padding their resumes.
Though the narration track proves to be mostly redundant, Reyes does provide an appropriately burnished look, with fall colors, for the hell in which Rosa finds himself. Inevitably, Empire reveals itself to be an empty moralistic exercise, depicting a tourist attraction and not the place people live.