Film: Empire State
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Dwayne Johnson, Michael Angarano
Directed by: Dito Montiel
I absolutely guarantee you that reading a liveblog of this movie would be far more entertaining than watching the film itself. Liam Hemsworth may have gotten notions after The Expendables 2, but any empathy incurred by his speedy dispatch in that film will be firmly revoked by Empire State. This is one of the most thoroughly confused films I’ve seen in a long time, a piece that pitches itself as a drama but seems to undergo an identity crisis twenty minutes from the end and veer wildly in the direction of a non-existent comedic undertone. It’s hampered by terrible dialogue, gross miscasting, annoying characters, a pantheon of laughable goons (mostly Greeks, which is at least original, but also the most inept and terribly-accented Colombian drug lord you’ll ever see), and most criminally of all, gross under-use of Dwayne “100% pure franchise salve” Johnson. Johnson’s few appearances onscreen are the only time this film approaches watchable, his presence serving to highlight the charismatic vacuum that exists elsewhere. Even more baffling than his under-use is his character’s utter ineffectualness. He’s the token good cop who doesn’t take things at face value and actually seems committed to his job, but he kind of skirts round the edges and watches things unfold without ever really getting involved. It’s tempting to say that he too is miscast, but then again, without Samoan Thor (cheers for this, Fast 6) on the billing this movie would have close to zero appeal.
Claiming to be based on actual events, Empire State is set in New York in the early Eighties. Chris (Hemsworth) is the streetwise but decent son of Greek immigrants hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a police officer. When his application is rejected due to an offence from years earlier, he takes a job at a dodgy security firm that transports cash between businesses. Later, when his partner is killed during a heist, he discovers the firm intends to pay only a fraction of the benefits owed to the man’s widow and starts making plans to rob the cash vault, aided by his impossibly irritating friend Eddie (Michael Angarano). Meanwhile, Detective James Ransome (Johnson), investigating the heist that claimed Chris’s partner’s life, becomes suspicious of the pair.
It’s not clear how much – if at all – Empire State is indeed based on a true story but if it is it could actually have done with more dramatisation. It’s dull and languid and despite its relatively promising premise, next to nothing actually happens across its 90-minute running time. It probably could have been a lot better were its leading man not such a dead weight. Hemsworth lacks the magnetic screen presence of his older brother (actual Thor) and could have done with a gentler vehicle to showcase what talent he does have. Asking the audience to take him seriously as the son of a Greek ex-pat is pushing it to begin with, as the blonde Australian looks nothing like any Greek you’ve ever seen and stands toweringly apart from his decidedly more Mediterranean-inclined family. In a role that demands he be at least compelling to keep audience interest on board, Hemsworth is reserved and withdrawn – an awkward, gangly presence who can’t convey either the moral courage or the emotional wrangling that underpins his character’s decision-making. He’s further let down by the single most annoying sidekick in cinematic history. Michael Angarano, whose career highlight thus far is surely Disney’s triumphant Sky High, is so punch-worthy you may actually want to re-evaluate Jar-Jar Binks after you watch this. To be fair, Angarano gives it his all, but commitment can only do so much when your scriptwriter seems to believe that gravitas stems from adding a heady concoction of f-bombs to your dialogue. In another world, this is Shia LaBeouf doing a very bad impression of Ratzo Rizzo, and it’s exactly as horrifying as that sounds.
Even so, the poor leads could have been forgiven were the world around them given any grounding in reality. Empire State’s take on the Bronx in the 1980s wants to look tough and menacing, but is so low-rent it’d look out of place even on a dodgy cable channel. The lack of a convincing environment only serves to exacerbate the complete absence of villainy. It’s never clear whether the Greek mob or Chris’s crooked employers are the bad guys or, indeed, which ones we’re supposed to be rooting against. Neither actually displays any semblance of menace and the only real shock occurs when a fringe character (played by Turtle from Entourage) gets shot in the face only for it to later transpire that the bullet grazed his cheek. Or something. Two FBI agents pop up briefly, looking more like escapees off an SNL skit than actual officers, while Emma Roberts’ Nancy so incredibly lacks a point you’d feel sorry for any real-world woman on whom she might have been based.
Empire State probably started life as a decent idea, but falls apart in the face of its inability to make anything about itself believable. Gritty crime capers, even the funny ones, still require people who look like they might actually survive overnight in their dingy surroundings. It helps if their dialogue is not peppered with meaningless profanity (you need to communicate something other than swear words, lads) and weary platitudes. A tense, brooding look at one man’s impossible choice this is not. One ends up wishing that Johnson had morphed into his Fast & Furious character Luke Hobbs and laid utter waste to all these trivial excuses for gangsters. At least then he’d have been gotten to sport a wicked goatee.
Review written by: Grace Duffy