There is a reason why small-time crooks remain small, and why organized crime tends to last throughout the ages. As we learn in Empire State, irony was the culprit in one of the largest cash heists of its time. Nearly eight million dollars was taken in a blunt force entry in 1982 New York, and its execution could not have been more amateurish.
After being rejected from a position with the police, Chris (Liam Hemsworth) takes up a job as a security guard with Empire Securities. He tells his childhood friend Eddie (Michael Angarano) about the large amount of cash and lax security procedures of his new gig. On Chris’ second day of the job aboard an armored truck, it is bombed with his partner fatally shot by masked thieves. Chris is relegated to the night shift of watching the cash, but recent employer oppression in his social sphere provokes him to pull an inside job.
The film begins with Eddie walking off a job, and depending on the perspective, he either quit or was fired. This battle between the employer and the employee is a thematic symptom that provokes Chris to rage against the system from behind the security desk. Chris’ father is fired from a job after ten years of loyalty, and the family of the security officer that was fatally shot receives only a tenth of the promised insurance money. Chris becomes sympathetic with the working-class continuously getting the shaft from occupations where years of loyalty is essentially meaningless.
Empire State portrays the division between the ethnic and national social spheres in the Bronx and Queens. New York is one of the most eclectic melting pots in the world, and while these ethnicities are neighbors they tend to stick to their own turf and marginalize, if not homogenize the Other. Chris and Eddie are of Greek descent, but they begin to infiltrate Puerto Rican and Columbian circles. The unfettered prejudice between these circles places extraneous pressure on the situations that arise in the future.
The film shows a New York City still in disarray from its worst period. Heightened crime and economic disparity lingers in the atmosphere thanks to the egregious trash and litter that is sprawled across the street. One scene has the NYPD, FBI, and some of New York’s upcoming politicians brainstorming the possibilities of the heist’s culprits. While these elements are included to portray historical accuracy, they tend to provoke laughs as their inclusion is clunky but nostalgic.
Although Hemsworth is indeed the main character, his performance is dull and uninspiring. No matter, the breakout performance of Empire State is from Angarano, who depicts the cacophonous jester with impulsive comedic and dramatic timing. His role even over shadows that of Dwayne Johnson, whose presence is usually demanding, but here he plays a grounded cop that is concerned and cautious.
Empire State made its world premiere as the opening night film at the 2013 Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, FL. Director Dito Montiel and producer Randall Emmett were in attendance for a Q & A as well as Emmett receiving a Florida Producer award from the Festival. The short reel prior to Emmett’s award reception chronicled his career as a producer, but the films tended to feature the same themes and motifs; urban crime films. Montiel’s shorter career also tends to portray similar premises.
The motivations to pull off such a large heist tend to be the same motivations that spawned the Bonnie and Clydes of the 1930s and the gross mistrust of capitalism during economic depression. Although one audience member during the Q & A pointed to the similarities and influences from films such as Dog Day Afternoon and other heists, the comedic underpinnings lend Empire State to have more in common with The Lavender Hill Mob as the motions to pull off a heist is based off the gross incompetence of all the characters from top to bottom. Empire State is indeed intriguing as a suspenseful crime drama that chronicles the symptoms of criminal behavior, and swims in the irony that such a large heist was carried out by a couple of bumbling small-time crooks. It is easy to sympathize with Chris’ position and social pressures, but it just as simple to laugh at his own incompetence in directing a heist where he never had control in the first place.