With my mind on my money,
And my money on my mind.
— Snoop Dogg, “Gin and Juice”
Of the many crazy clichés in Empire, Isabella Rossellini’s big fat hair has to be the loony-tunesiest. For most of Franc. Reyes’ neo-gangster movie, she remains out of sight, a mysterious millionaire drug queen-pin known as “La Colombiana.” Her eventual appearance, more than an hour into the film, is completely worth the wait. Seated at her patio table, her jewelry clinking and her gloriously crooked teeth glinting in the sunlight, La Colombiana holds forth, her hair teased high atop her head and falling into perfect flips — a veritable hair riot.
Alas, aside from this brief, special moment, Empire, the first film produced by the Hispanic-focused Arenas Entertainment, is hardly surprising. This despite the fact that the central gangster-boy, the jangly, ambitious Vic, is played by John Leguizamo. Though he brings his usual charismatic energy, he’s up against it: a predictable plot (essentially ripped off from Carlito’s Way, on which Reyes worked as choreographer — check Penelope Ann Miller’s pole dancing) and weed-whacker editing (in a couple of instances, it’s juts a mystery how he gets from one scene to another).
While Vic will learn that crime does not pay (and without the benefit of Sean Penn’s oh-so-memorable Carlito’s hair), for a little while, he has that cocky, got-it-all attitude. He sees himself following in the footsteps of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and that “geek motherfucker” Bill Gates, and it’s hard to disagree: ruthlessness is an asset in corporate politics. Vic’s got his loyal crew — Jimmy (Vincent Laresca), Chedda (Treach), and Jay (Rafael Báez) — and swears by a familiar credo: “Keep your brothers close and your beef even closer” (which he credits to his dead and much adored brother, but Jimmy knows it’s from The Godfather).
According to Vic, the heroin dealer’s existence is all about maintaining respect and turf divisions: he has one section, the biggest section, and others belong to Tito Severe (Fat Joe) or Hector (Carlos Leon, better known as father to Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon). Though these lugs end up with bullets in their heads, Vic thinks he’s different, mostly because he’s more of the same. He’s got the first-rate ride, the designer jeans, the assorted slick leather jackets. True, he still lives in the projects and has to hide his cash in 9 separate locations, but he’s the big fish in his little pond. As he puts it in his mostly redundant voiceover, he can park his $40,000 vehicle anywhere in the hood. No one messes with his property.
Here Vic counts his lovely chica, Carmen (Delilah Cotto), whom he notes is smart enough to go to college but somehow not smart enough to see that his dealing gig is a dead end; her mother (Sonia Braga) suggests as much, but she’s only on screen twice, so no one pays much attention to her. Then again, Carmen’s judgment hardly matters. She’s a plot device of the most tedious sort: her pregnancy prompts Vic to rethink his “lifestyle,” and her friendship with a white girl opens the door to his next option.
When Vic gives Carmen a $17,000 diamond necklace, she wears it to school, where her “friend” Trish (Denise Richards working her own big wigs) spots it and immediately decides they need to be better friends. She invites Carmen and her ostentatious man to a party, where they’re marked by what they wear, how they walk, and how they speak. Some skinny girls in cocktail dresses lust after Vic’s jittery tough guy affect (Leguizamo swaggers more convincingly than Paul Muni, and more subtly than Al Pacino), but it’s Trish’s boyfriend Jack (Peter Sarsgaard) who really takes a shine to him.
Smirking and shuffling, Jack calls himself an “investment banker,” and speaks that opaque Wall Street insiders’ lingo well enough to impress perpetual outsider Vic. The two of them agree that street business is no “different” in effects and ethics than boardroom business, Jack gives him free use of a Soho loft, offers him stupid girlfriend advice, and buys him Armani suits on the “corporate card.” Vic is smitten. When Jack baits him, suggesting that maybe he’s not ready to come along for the big deal, Vic insists, “I was born ready, baby!” Unable to contain himself, it’s not long before Vic’s investing $4 million of his and (bad idea) La Colombiana’s money in a sweet “legit” deal with the obviously odious Jack.
Regardless of Vic’s keen understanding of the workings of capitalism, he’s doomed by his desire to be like Jack and be liked by Jack, or so the film contends. Street vengeance, cruel and extravagant as it is, comes off as less degenerate than good old white-collar brutality. Though Vic falls for the most ridiculous ploys (Trish on his lap) and responds in the most predictable ways (violent retribution), Jack’s presumption of privilege and overt racism (“Go back to your ghetto!”) remain Empire‘s primary targets. Surely, they’re worthy targets, but just as surely, there’s a less hackneyed means to take aim.