A gangster flick with authentic Latin flavor and a twist that fingers high finance could figure as a kind of Hollywood risk that might pay off big. But Empire doesn’t successfully deliver its cash-driven and bullet-ridden modern tragedy, most of which has been done better before.

Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) is young, good-looking (confidently self-described) and “Nuyorican.” He’s one of four Latino heroin entrepreneurs each controlling and violently defending the markets of their strictly drawn quadrants of the Bronx.

For Vic, Empire’s first-person mouthpiece, “It’s all about one thing: making money. All the rest is bullshit.” Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), a young-lion investment banker, agrees. Vic’s knuckles hammer the face of a drug dealer interloping on his territory like first-time writer-director Franc. Reyes ham-fistedly beats out his message: Business is business, be it in the corporate boardroom or the streets and back rooms of the barrio; the end of greed is the same and only in the means lie cultural contrasts.

The clash of their cultures ensnares Vic and Jack in the crash of their ambitious greed, and causes them both to careen together into premature tragedy. True to archetypical tragedy, it’s women who get the catastrophe rolling: The two men are brought together by their girlfriends — Vic’s Carmen (Delilah Cotto) and Jack’s Trish (Denise Richards). The “street pharmacist” and investment banker form an odd-couple, mutual admiration and envy society, with Vic wanting to legitimately walk out of the barrio and onto Wall Street and Jack wanting to walk on the criminal wild side. It seems, though, that if you stray from your born walk of life, you could end up in a world of trouble. Reyes’ moral could be right out of The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.”

Empire is somewhat of a homecoming for Leguizamo. Vic is a reprise of Benny Blanco from the Bronx, the man who would be prince of the New York underworld in director Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993). Carlito was a modern tragic hero, a Puerto Rican drug dealer struggling to leave the barrio and go legit, like Vic. But De Palma’s film (one of his best) is effectively plotted and told in artistic pictures. Reyes’ isn’t. Despite its occasional freshness, his Empire falls short.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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