'Empire State' Doesn't Live Up to Its Own Story
In 1982, a group of small-time thieves broke into the headquarters of an armored car company in the Bronx and stole $11 million. At the time, it was the largest cash heist in US history. The lone security guard on duty, a 23-year-old kid from Queens, claimed that three men handcuffed him and then committed the robbery. As the police would later discover, the seemingly mild-mannered guard had provided crucial information to the men who carried out the heist, and had in fact been a collaborator all along.
This real-life story serves as the inspiration for Empire State, an action vehicle starring Liam Hemsworth and Dwayne Johnson. Hemsworth plays as Christos Potamitis, the young Greek-American security guard who provided insider information to his heist-hungry friends. Johnson plays Det. James Ransone, the hard-hitting NYPD cop who smells something fishy in Potamitis’ story and pursues him against the advice of the FBI.
Given the intriguing story on which it is based, it’s surprising that Empire State doesn’t pack more punch. Potamitis and Ransone are portrayed as one-dimensional characters who are driven almost entirely by strong moral and ethical sentiments. Potamitis wants to help his struggling parents; Ransone takes his oath to serve and protect seriously. These two might be the main characters in the film, but it’s hyper and impatient young thug Eddie (Michael Angarano) who is by far the most interesting character we meet.
Jumpy and unpredictable, Eddie is one of Chris’ best friends. The two spend a great deal of time hanging out, talking about women and dreaming about a more prosperous future. In one of the first scenes, we learn that Chris can’t become a police officer because he was caught smoking pot with Eddie as a teen. It’s immediately clear that Eddie cannot be trusted with secrets. But of course, trusting Eddie is precisely what Potamitis does.
When the young security guard lets slip in front of a few friends that the armored truck company where he works is poorly secured at night, the young men immediately begin dreaming of the high life. Goaded on by his friends, Chris decides to steal a bag containing some $25,000. When he isn’t caught, he begins to believe that he and his friends can pull off a major heist and walk away with enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. They negotiate a shady deal with a Colombian drug lord, who is played on film by an actor who has apparently never heard a real Colombian accent in all of his life.
In the movie, the friends spend most of their time planning the heist in dingy neighborhood cafes. As they plot from these not-so-hidden places, they must also decide how they can avoid letting neighborhood crime boss Spyro (Chris Diamantopoulos) in on their plan. A violent thug and restaurant owner, Spyro also happens to employ Chris’ father. While the relationship between Spyro and the Potamitises is touched upon in the film, further exploration of how the two families deal with one another could have added a lot to the otherwise lackluster story. Viewers who are interested in the film’s reality factor will have to roll their eyes at all this supposed top-secret planning in mob-owned cafes.
As the night of the heist approaches, the viewer hopes that perhaps this is the scene where the action is going to kick into high gear. We sit in the lonely Empire Armored Car headquarters with Chris, who plans to phone friends waiting a few blocks away once everyone else has left the building. This is it; the viewer can feel that Chris will make the call and the heist will happen. Before he can do so, though, NYPD officers burst into the office, telling the guard that they’ve received a tip that there might be a robbery at the company that night.
Potamitis immediately begins to worry: Did one of his friends tell Spyro about their plan? How can he possibly tell his associates to get out of the neighborhood before the police pick them up? His worries are quickly eased by the arrival of a second, unknown robbery squad who are met by the NYPD. The resulting shootout is much less interesting than it could be, because the cinematography itself is quite dark and key players are difficult to pick out on the screen. One might also wonder how Chris, who professes to have never shot a gun at all in one of the movie’s first scenes, suddenly becomes an expert marksman.
The problem of lackluster action plagues the entire film. When Chris and his friends finally do carry out the heist, they do so with a lot less panache than one might expect for such a big theft. As a result, Ransone’s pursuit of the crew also seems less than enthusiastic. Because the film fails to create any real tension between the characters, scenes that are written to be tense and explosive are instead so banal and straightforward that no guesswork is needed to determine exactly what’s going to happen at the end.
An interview with the real Chris Potamitis, featured as an extra of the Blu-ray release of the film, is the most interesting thing on the whole disc. As he talks about planning the heist and what has happened in the years since, the viewer can’t help but feel that the fictionalized version of the events has cheated them out of the rich character of Potamitis. Too much morality and too little action make Empire State just another heist movie.