Empire, Starring John Leguizamo, was not the movie the previews led me to believe it would be. If you watch the trailer for Empire, it may lead you to the impression that the story goes something like this:
Drug dealer meets wall street investment banker, drug dealer gives wall street investment banker a lot of money, investment banker disappears, drug dealer and his well-armed friends track down investment banker and a literal class war erupts, and since the drug dealer was the good guy in this story, he wins in the end.
Nope. Most of that is not what this movie is about. To explain, I’m going to reveal the entire movie. You weren’t going to go see it anyway, but since the only reason to watch it is for the outstanding performance by Leguizamo, knowing the story may just prepare you for the sort of turmoil he goes through.
The main character, a drug dealer played excellently by John Leguizamo in one of the most serious and emotionaly intense roles I remember seeing him in, does in fact meet and invest with an investment banker who runs off with his money, but that’s not what this movie is about. This movie is really about said drug dealer’s downward spiral.
He starts the movie the most important person in his neighborhood, with literally millions of dollars of liquid assets, a girlfriend that loves him, and a crew he can rely on and has known his entire life. He’s putting his girlfriend through college, where she makes friends with the girlfriend of the investment banker, and at the end of the first night our hero meets the banker at a party his girlfriend dragged him to uptown, she also reveals that she is pregnant with his child, and he gets shot by a member of a competing dealer’s crew. These events all coming together at once convince him that he needs to get out of the business and into something legitimate to protect his girl and his child, and of course he gets in touch with his new investment banker friend.
Except now he also has to deal with the competing dealer who shot him up, and he’s got to convince his crew he isn’t betraying them to want to get out, and he’s moving uptown, and things start falling apart. He gets arrested for the murders of the competing dealer and his crew & has to turn to his investment banker friend’s uptown lawyer to get him out of jail. His friends begin to turn on him, and with good cause; he is a changed man, and doesn’t want to involve himself with their lifestyle anymore. He is trying to seperate himself from the dangerous life he was living, but his girlfriend still feels a connection to her friends and family and neighborhood they are leaving behind and they fight about it and he leaves her standing very pregnant alone at night on a street corner in the ghetto.
Now, he’d already invested a million dollars with his investment banker friend, and right after his girl leaves him he gets back two million on his invesment, so he thinks he can really finally get out of his old life. His investment banker friend tells him about a much bigger deal, this one he needs to put of 4.5 million dollars, and by the end of the week. What do you think he does? This is where his downward spiral really gets out of hand. He contacts the woman who supplies him and his competition (played adequately by Isabella Rosellini) and asks her to invest with him because he’s short 1.5 million dollars, promising her amazing results. She tells him he just needs to keep the person he put in charge of his crew from resorting to violence re:the competition. So of course the guy shoots the competition in the head and our hero must kill him for the supplier. Except he doesn’t; the supplier’s goon has to do it for him.
In between, he is stressing out about how far down the tubes his life is going and he gets a call from his investment banker friend and asks again if the investment is legitimate, and mentions that he’s going out of his head just sitting alone in his apartment. The investment banker secretly calls his girlfriend and has her give him a visit. She pretends she hasn’t heard from him and is genuinely interested in our hero. He shows amazing resolve, and is pushing her off him when his girlfriend walks in to try to make up and instead she leaves in tears.
He gets the money together and gives it to the banker. The banker disappears. Every trace that he was there is gone. There’s a different business where his business had been, his home is empty, his phones are disconnected. That heoric battle between the drug dealers and the investment bankers I envisioned earlier? It can’t happen now because half the dealers in New York are dead, and those remaining consider our hero a traitor. He can’t even turn to his girl for support because she believes he was trying to cheat on her with the banker’s girlfriend.
The intensity of the situation is amazingly well crafted, and John’s performance was impressive. I won’t reveal the very end of things, but suffice it to say it doesn’t magically get better all of a sudden. His spiral just keeps going down, and there’s a confrontation scene where he’s almost more like an enraged, caged animal doing whatever he needs to get himself out of the situation he’s got himself into, and it is gripping in a way you haven’t seen John Leguizamo attempt before.
If Wil Smith deserved the Oscar nomination for Ali, John Leguizamo deserves a nomination at least for this performance. No, he wasn’t recreating a historical figure, but there was more depth of character and intensity of emotion all across the scale here. Not a groundbreaking story per se, but a breathtaking performance.