Monday, December 2, 2013
“Empire State” (** OUT OF ****) qualifies as an interesting but mediocre armored car company heist epic. Ostensibly, “Fighting” director Dito Montiel and “Breach” scenarist Adam Mazer failed to take advantage of a fantastic opportunity to make a first class caper film. The real-life incident itself constituted something of a landmark in crime annuals. According to the Associated Press, the $11-million robbery of the Sentry Armored Car amounted to “the largest cash robbery in U.S. history.” Furthermore, the AP pointed out this robbery surpassed the December 1978 robbery of $5.8 million in cash and jewelry taken by thieves from the Lufthansa cargo area at Kennedy International Airport. Martin Scorsese immortalized the Lufthansa heist in his crime magnum opus “Goodfellas” with Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta. Meantime, Montiel assembled an enviable cast including Liam Hemsworth, Michael Angarano, Dwayne Johnson, Emma Roberts, Paul Ben-Victor, Michael Rispoli, and Roger Guenveur Smith. “Empire State” generates sufficient atmosphere, but the plot is curiously lackluster. Montiel and Mazer neither made a semi-historical crime reconstruction (the loot hasn’t been recovered) or a fictional counterpoint to it exploiting history as a jumping off point.
Contemporary crime thrillers often implicate audiences because we are rooting for the charismatic perpetrators. Initially, the protagonist, Chris Potamitis (Liam Hemsworth of “The Hunger Games”), wins our sympathy for three reasons. First, he cannot land a job with the NYPD owing to a penny-ante marijuana arrest at a rock concert years ago. Second, his Greek-born father, Tommy (Paul Ben-Victor of “True Romance”), loses his blue-collar job as a janitor after a quarrel in the toilet of a local bar with the owner. Third, Chris is outraged by the cavalier treatment of a fellow employee at an armored car company days after he is hired as a guard. No sooner has our hero gotten a job with the Empire Armored Car Company than he watches in horror as his friendly mentor, Tony (Michael Rispoli of “Pain & Gain”), dies during a botched robbery attempt. Tony’s assailant shoots the family man several times in the stomach during a struggle. Earlier, Tony ridiculed his employer’s slipshod security measures. He showed Chris how easy it would be to steal from the company vault. Tony explains that the owners never count the money after they have stashed on pallets in their vault with a harmless German Sheppard prowling the premises. Furthermore, he reveals that the owners have been known to skim the money entrusted to them. Chris is astonished at the sight of $25 million in money bags scattered haphazardly in the vault. Later, after Tony dies, the company welshes on its promise to pay $50-thousand his widow. Instead, as Chris learns afterward, they have paid her a measly $5-thousand. Like a modern-day Robin Hood, Chris steals enough loot from the company to pay off the widow.
At this point, Chris makes several mistakes. First, he flaunts his haul to an arrogant, conceited childhood pal, Eddie (Michael Angarano of “Almost Famous”), who has an unfortunate habit of shooting off his mouth.. Eddie gives new meaning to “loose lips sinking ships.” Chris and Eddie blow the rest of the loot that our hero stole on booze and babes. Loquacious Eddie babbles to a couple of low-level street hooligans from the neighborhood. The temptation of easy money is too much for them to pass up. Second, Chris loses our sympathy when he agrees to rob the company. He is giving into his own greed with no other reason that avarice itself. Ironically, the thugs in a van who tried to rob Empire earlier now attempt to break into the Empire facility one evening. This unexpected turn of events takes Chris by surprise. Eddie and his hooligan friends were planning to knock off the place at the same time. Previously, when these thugs killed Tony and shot up Chris’s bullet-proof vest, the NYPD dispatched Detective Ransome (Dwayne Johnson of “Pain & Gain”) to investigate. Ransome and his partner show up again when the thugs hit Empire and a small gunfight ensues with Chris entering the fray at the last minute. He manages to kill one of the thugs as the latter was about to ice Ransome. Chris basks in brief fame in the local press, but Eddie goads him to take advantage of the Empire’s slack security.
The robbery that follows shows Chris in an unsavory light. Eddie smashes his way through the ceiling and Chris coaches him about how to wear his apparel so that a security camera will not record his face. Eventually, Eddie has to smash his gun over Chris’s head to make it look like Chris was the victim rather than the mastermind of the robbery. Naturally, Ransome is back on the case and keeping tabs on our hero. Eddie and his mobster pal get into trouble and the FBI enter the case. It is only a matter of time before Eddie goes so berserk that Chris’s father Tommy intervenes and the NYPD arrest everybody, but the money is never found. “Empire State” implies that the loot is hidden in a statue that Chris gave his mother. Nevertheless, nobody ever reaps the rewards of the robbery. Ironically, Chris Potamitis served as a co-producer on “Empire State.” He served a brief sentence for his involvement in the crime.
Clocking in at 94 minutes, “Empire State” generates neither enough urgency nor sufficient suspense. The hero degenerates from a Robin Hood to a hopeless moron. Dwayne Johnson shows up 22 minutes into the action then checks out and returns another twenty minutes or so later but lurks for the most part on the periphery. Emma Roberts plays a restaurant waitress and appears to be Chris’ quasi-love interest, but the sparks never fly between them. The shoot-out at Empire Armored is noisy but never thrilling. The worst thing about “Empire State” is that Montiel had everything necessary to make a classic heist caper. Mazer’s screenplay wavers between a Robin Hood crime thriller where the underdogs triumph over a corrupt business to a comedy of errors where idiots allow their own stupidity and greed undermine them. “Empire State” boasts polished production values, a solid cast, and historic precedent, but it shoots itself in the foot with its sloppy approach to its subject matter. This is a deplorably missed opportunity for everybody connected with this movie.