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Empire State

2013 | 94 min | R | 2.39:1

Empire State


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Empire State Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 23, 2013

Director Dito Montiel is a major fan of New York City. It’s been the setting for all his pictures, and the helmer loves to infuse his work with urban juices of bravado and street honor. For all his labor and knowledge of the area, Montiel has yet to tell a story with any type of encouraging success. With “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” “Fighting,” and “The Son of No One,” the filmmaker has summoned tremendous passion and grit, but there’s always been a lack of substance. “Empire State” adds to the nagging emptiness surrounding Montiel’s screen efforts, only this tale of a heist gone wrong is more streamlined, calculated to appeal to fans of the subgenre, and it still shows no signs of life.

In 1982, Chris (Liam Hemsworth) is searching for a way out of poverty, hoping to carry his sad sack father Tommy (Paul Ben-Victor) and the rest of his family with a cushy position on the NYC police force. Turned down for training, Chris is devastated, taking a low-paying gig as an armed guard for a security company, soon discovering a fortune in cash loosely protected by the owners. Realizing that he could skim without being noticed, Chris takes a few thousand dollars, sharing the wealth with longtime pal and perpetual troublemaker Eddie (Michael Angarano), who immediately spills the beans to fellow crooks and aspiring gangsters. Demanding an opportunity to steal millions piled up in a backroom guarded by a blind dog, Eddie lures Chris in with a sketchy plan. When the heist goes to hell, Detective Ransome (Dwayne Johnson) begins the hunt for suspects, watching Chris closely as violence erupts over the stolen cash.

“Empire State” is bookended with television footage of the heist, revealing that the screenplay by Adam Mazer is rooted in a real-world crime that’s remained unsolved to this day. It’s a promise of verisimilitude that’s not kept for very long, with Montiel quickly transforming the film into a Scorsese-style portrait of financial desperation deep in the heart of the Big Apple, greased down with period details that keep the cast in iffy haircuts (with the exception of Johnson) and costuming. Movie marquees are also prominently featured. “Empire State” doesn’t go cartoon, but it teeters on the edge of ridiculousness for an uncomfortable amount of time, working up a combustible air of lifelong friendships tested and crime sprees planned, with the cast attempting to conjure the NYC attitude with meaty accents, itchy cigarette fingering, and chest-pounding punctuation.

Perhaps the shallowness of “Empire State” is due to its erratic sense of storytelling. There appears to be entire pieces of the movie missing to help simplify the central plot concerning Chris and Eddie’s run of panic, with the screenplay hinting at a stronger summation of its themes concerning the protective relationships between fathers and sons, while detours into organized crime that highlight coke deals and acts of intimidation with a local godfather are left a mess, hastily inserted into the tale to create an expanse of misery that never connects. Montiel wants to generate hardball elements of threat to apply pressure on Chris as he figures out how to control Eddie and the money, but there’s no authority to the subplots. The same frustrating distance applies to the law enforcement side of the conflict, sucking tension out of the picture. What should be a pummeling story of cops and robbers becomes a lackluster run of suspicions that never pan out as forcefully as Montiel imagines.

Also baffling is an appearance from Emma Roberts as Nancy, a kindly waitress who’s a friend to Chris in his time of need. The character’s function is unclear, possibly included as a potential love interest for the lead character, but the role has been severely reduced to that of a cameo. I would bet that somewhere on a hard drive in Hollywood, there’s a three-hour version of this 90-minute-long picture, with its cat’s cradle of motivations and connections explored in greater detail.

“Empire State” reveals a dash of uniqueness with its Greek neighborhood setting, stepping away from the Italian routine for a change of scenery and last names. And that’s it for distinction during the formulaic picture, which eventually dissolves into gunfire and heated arguments concerning loyalties. Sadly, Montiel’s worked through this type of tough guy material before, yet there’s still no sign of creative growth. Maybe it’s time for the filmmaker to move out of New York City and see what the rest of the country is up to.

Starring: Emma Roberts, Liam Hemsworth, Dwayne Johnson, Nikki Reed, James Ransone, Michael Angarano
Director: Dito Montiel

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