The Rise and Fall of a Latino Gangster
Release Date: December 06, 2002
Audience: Older teenagers and adults
Runtime: 99 minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: Franc.[sic] Reyes
Executive Producer: Robert B. Campbell
Producer: Daniel Bigel and Michael Mailer
Writer: Franc.[sic] Reyes
Address Comments To:Stacey Snider, Chairman
Ron Meyer, President/COO
100 Universal City Plaza
Universal City, CA 91608-1085
Phone: (818) 777-1000
Web Page: www.universalstudios.com
Money is the love of Victor Ramos’s life. “That’s what this country is built on,” he tells viewers in narration. “It’s all about one thing . . . making money. Simple as that. Everything else is just BS.”
To play his role in seeking the American Dream, Victor leads a small gang of drug dealers in the Bronx in New York City. His gang and two other gangs have divided the Bronx up into three separate territories. They all get their heroin from the same Colombian connection, a woman named La Colombiana, played by Isabella Rossellini.
Victor’s girlfriend, Trish, is a beautiful college student who’s trying to earn her way out of the Bronx. Her best friend at college is the girlfriend of Jack, a self-described investment banker on Wall Street, played by Peter Sarsgaard. An unintended tragedy in a violent gang war has Victor re-thinking his lifestyle choices, so he starts investing his ill-gotten gains with Jack.
Victor becomes intoxicated by Jack’s high rolling lifestyle, which alienates his more realistic girlfriend. He also finds that his old ties with his violent past are not so easy to break. The movie ends on a downward spiral of violence, betrayal and death.
EMPIRE is, in many ways, an archetypal gangster movie. The drug dealing protagonist is giddy from all the power and money that his violent, illegal occupation has given to him. The same thing happens in such classic movies as LITTLE CAESAR, PUBLIC ENEMY and the original SCARFACE, all made in the early 1930s.
What makes EMPIRE a little bit different is its Latino setting, which is geared to the growing Hispanic audience, and Victor’s attempt to use Wall Street financial deals as his ticket out of the urban barrio. Of course, the movie makes it clear that Victor is out of his league, especially when he tries to mix his Colombian connection with his newfound Wall Street connection. When he gets into trouble doing this, the only solutions he can produce are violent ones. The result of all this is the typical tragic fall that occurs in most gangster movies, a tragic fall of nearly Shakespearean proportions.
John Leguizamo, who cut his teeth on standup comedy, turns in a gifted performance as the violent, doomed Victor Ramos. His character has to suffer through some predictable moments, however, as well as some laughable ones that produced snickers from some of the people in the crowd at the press screening. Like most young actors working today, Leguizamo would be well advised to look for more family-friendly, redemptive and even Christian material to add to his resume. That would be the best way he could serve both his people and all other people, especially children.
The fact that EMPIRE provides some aesthetic, moral lessons in this story of the archetypal rise and fall of a violent criminal does not excuse the excessive foul language that peppers the script by director Franc.[sic] Reyes. Nor does it excuse the titillating nude lesbian scene that occurs at one point in the story. Of course, there’s also lots of very strong gun violence in the movie, although the director, Reyes, sometimes takes the nobler, more artistic way out and implies violence in three or four important shots, rather than revealing all the gory violent details in Victor’s story.
Regrettably, EMPIRE seems to suggest that Victor would have been better off if he had remained just a low-level drug dealer. To be fair, however, the movie also implies that, even if he had, the escalation of violence and death would have ended in a similar tragic fashion. On the other hand, the movie also has a Romantic worldview implying that social circumstances turn people into drug dealers and criminals. As Jesus Christ notes in Mark 7:20-23, however, it is our evil nature that turns us into despicable human beings. Only the Grace of God can redeem and extricate us from our own sinfulness.
John Leguizamo, who cut his teeth on standup comedy, turns in a gifted performance as the violent, doomed Victor Ramos. His character has to suffer through some predictable moments, however, as well as some laughable ones that produced snickers from some of the people in the crowd at the press screening. Despite some moral elements, EMPIRE contains an excessive amount of foul language, a Romantic worldview, some strong sexual references, nudity, and a story that overly glamorizes the life of an urban drug dealer.