PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Empire (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Of the many crazy clichés in Empire, Isabella Rossellini's big fat hair has to be the loony-tunesiest.


Director: Franc. Reyes
Cast: John Leguizamo, Delilah Cotto, Peter Sarsgaard, Denise Richards, Nestor Serrano, Treach, Fat Joe, Sonia Braga, Isabella Rossellini, Rafael Báez
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Arenas Entertainment
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-12-06
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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.