BY IRENE KARRAS
Empire State, which feels like a late-night cable crime-movie-of-the-week, went straight to DVD, despite Dwayne Johnson’s dimples and Liam Helmsworth’s it-boy status.
Since there was so little promotion for the film, I went in blind, expecting more Rock and less character development. Also, I had no idea the protagonists in this true story of the largest heist in North American History were of Greek descent. I’m of Greek descent! Picking apart the accents and production details of the 1982 setting; bristling at the stereotypes of my people (Wow! Another mainstream media Greek diner owner/petty thug! So original!); and staying alert for the odd Greek word thrown out for authenticity amused and entertained me far more than the script did.
Chris Potamitis (played by a wooden Helmsworth) is a decent kid trying to get into the police force to make his immigrant dad proud. When he’s rejected, he takes a job at the most lax armored car security firm in the world. Day 2 on the job, his partner–a middle-aged family man–is killed, and Potamitis becomes further disillusioned with a society in which good men like his father and his partner get stepped on by big business and petty thugs alike. Thus begins a chain of events that ends with a $9 million robbery.
But the biggest crime of all is how quickly the film goes from promising to boring.
Don’t be fooled, as I was, by the DVD cover–though Johnson dominates the promo, he only shows up for about ten minutes as the hot-on-the-trail cop, and there is zero tension between his character and Helmsworth’s. I thought Johnson was going to offer to be Helmsworth’s Big Brother and take him for ice cream, which might actually have been an entertaining film. I bet that movie would get widespread distribution.
A shout-out to Michael Angarano, who comes off like Edward Norton’s shifty and shiftless younger brother; Chris Diamantopoulos, who chews it up as low-life Spyro; and Greg Vrotsos, who was convincing as Mike, petty thug #1. Charismatic enough, all three – more so than the big names.
Emma Roberts is a headliner here but I can’t remember who she played in the film. She was some waitress who may or may not have been Helmsworth’s intended love interest and inspiration to do better. If so, those scenes were cut leaving behind a forgettable filler character.
Look, if you want a gritty and more realistic portrayal of organized crime syndicates featuring Greeks, watch Seasons 2, 4 and 5 of The Wire. If you want to see a really well-done based-on-a-true-story period piece from the same era, watch Argo. If you want to see a Dwayne Johnson movie, watch any of the other movies he’s actually in.
I’m being generous in my review here. If I had to shell out movie theatre money, my grade would be even lower. But for late night cable, it’s not a total fail.
Irene Karras is a Calgary-based communications consultant and freelance writer with a fondness for 1950s Greek melodramas, 1980s coming of age movies, weird Canadian films, and, by necessity, PG movies. She blogs at misplacedmysassy.wordpress.com and tweets @irene_karras.