Published December 10, 2002
Everybody’s a postmodernist these days. Empire by Franc. (please observe point) Reyes is essentially a dreary little ghetto movie of the most predictable kind, full of the combination of moralizing and belligerent vulgarity which is the hallmark of the genre. Yet even here there is a moment when, in a conversation between two Puerto Rican gang members from the Bronx, one says sagely to the other that, as his much admired but now deceased older brother used to say, “Keep your homeys close but your beef closer.” The other one tells him that the line is from Godfather II, and the second professes astonishment: “I thought it was straight out of my brother’s mouth.”
This, I take it, is meant to be funny, like the rival gang leader who is so fat that he can’t even get up from the couch when he is being shot at, but has a sort of ejector button that shoots weapons into his hands from hidden compartments so that he can shoot back from the same position in which he watches TV. Both are movie moments, like so many movie moments these days, that create their witty, ironic effects by reminding you that you are watching a movie, and that the movie’s mirror, as it were, is held up not to nature but to movieland. Mr Reyes knows that you have seen stuff like this before, and he is telling us he knows so that we won’t think he takes it all too seriously. It’s only a movie, folks.
The trouble is that the ghetto movie sort of depends on our taking it seriously, or at least pretending to. Vic (John Leguizamo), a Puerto Rican drug dealer from the South Bronx is tempted into what he takes to be a legitimate investment scheme by Jack (Peter Sarsgaard), a young man who is supposedly a Wall Street high-flyer but who is really that stock figure of the ghetto movie: the treacherous white man who lures our ethnic hero to his destruction by seeming to befriend him. As in other ghetto movies, the real temptation of the e.h. is to forget his roots, though in this case his roots seem to consist of little more than his beloved “crew” of thugs and murderers and his apparently unbreakable attachment to the ruthless drug queen known as La Columbiana (Isabella Rossellini).
This is a movie that manages to be simultaneously moralizing and scornfully dismissive of morality. Its characters are treated as victims, their violence, vulgarity, ugliness and stupidity socially determined. In short, they’re depraved on account of they’re deprived — and they suffer, to boot, under the iron heel of what is called, not perhaps without a touch of conscious humor, “the Giuliani dictatorship.” Mr Leguizamo’s voiceovers make much of the supposed equivalence between his character and legitimate businessmen. He sees himself as an “entrepreneur” like Rockefeller or Bill Gates, and Jack in his only moment of sincerity agrees, telling his girlfriend, Trish (Denise Richards), that “If Vic were born in the suburbs, he would be running a Fortune 500 company.”
Or maybe not. For when Jack says the magic words “biotechnology” and “legit,” Vic is ready to turn a million dollars over to him, a guy he has met twice, for a promised return of 100 per cent in six months. And then, when the hook is baited with the promised second million, he not only sinks all the rest of his cash but borrows another million and a half from La Columbiana, promising her a five hundred per cent return. Is this what they call street smarts? His girlfriend, Carmen (Delilah Cotto), is apparently as dumb as he is, since, although she is pregnant, she is such a “roots” enthusiast that she opposes the move downtown to a SoHo loft and insists that Vic remain a drug dealer on the mean streets of the Bronx.
But at least this potential captain of industry is sophisticated enough to see that the businessman and the criminal are just the same. There’s no fooling him with any talk of ethics or respectability. Being “legit” is just another stratagem. Money is all that matters, and he has the facile sagacity to see that those who make it are all alike. But those of you who lack the sophistication to see no difference between legitimate business and pandering to the basest of human appetites while murdering one’s competitors — those, that is, who are not so far gone in economic theory as to be thus far out of touch with the obvious — will find little to enjoy in this movie.