It will probably be a long time before another movie pairs Euro-cinema princess Isabella Rossellini with XXL Latino rapper Fat Joe, yet that’s precisely the personality split that makes Empire so compelling. Writer-director Franc Reyes’ impressively polished debut works on two levels. On the surface, it’s a satisfyingly down-and-dirty melodrama about a South Bronx heroin dealer named Victor (John Leguizamo) who’s looking to make one last big score so he can finally get out of the game. But between bursts of automatic gunfire, the story offers a trenchant critique of capitalism, as Victor gets mixed up with an even more ruthless player, Wall Street high roller Jack Wimmer (”Boys Don’t Cry”’s Peter Sarsgaard, oozing sleaze in a potentially star-making turn).
The grab-bag ensemble encompasses not only Rossellini (as a flamboyant drug queen, done up like Liz Taylor circa 1963) and Fat Joe (as a street pusher with a soft spot for his PlayStation-obsessed son) but also Denise Richards, a perfect Malibu Barbie as Jack’s insipid girlfriend. Still, Leguizamo owns ”Empire,” the first film to capture the live-wire crackle of his one-man stage shows (”Sexaholix…A Love Story,” ”Spic-O-Rama”). He’s front and center in nearly every scene, and he holds the screen with a simmering self-assurance.
”Empire” reunites Leguizamo with Nestor Serrano (in the chilling role of Rossellini’s hit-man brother), his castmate from the late writer-director Joseph B. Vasquez’s sadly forgotten 1991 indie comedy, ”Hangin’ With the Homeboys.” A sweeter-souled South Bronx tale, ”Homeboys” got lost in the ”Boyz N the Hood”-era crowd of inner-city flicks. Amid the annual crush of Christmas-season releases, it would be a crime if ”Empire” were to wind up getting similarly dissed.