Empire State has the unmistakable stench of a project that the holders know is so bad that it could not have done well in a theater. It features both Dwayne Johnson and Liam Hemsworth in roles that show their bodies as less packed with muscle than their recent action-film endeavors present. Johnson, in particular, looks like he has literally half the body mass here. Another sign of a shelved project is Emma Roberts' name in the lead credits despite appearing in two scenes while Michael Angarano co-stars and isn't on the box.
Angarano got lucky. This is a grade-D terrible film with an unholy trio of stupid direction, terrible writing, and horrible performances. It takes an already stupid scenario and repeats it several times in some vain hope that it will be successfully entertaining or tense during one of the attempts. That's already insane, throwing boring on top of it just adds to the injury.
Empire State takes place in New York, where Chris (Hemsworth) is trying to figure out what to do with his life and decides to be a cop. On his way up he gets a job guarding armored cars and on the second day of his new position his partner is gunned down in an attempt to steal money from them. His partner has one hell of a pain tolerance considering he's shot and then tries to wrestle the assailant to the ground before taking at least five more bullets to the midsection before finally going under. After the company stiffs his partner's widow on their death benefits, Chris decides to pull a Robin Hood with his friend Eddie (Angarano), and is soon under investigation by Detective Ransom (Johnson).
The biggest problem with Empire State is that it veers wildly between a slice of life portrait of a working class family facing hard times in the '80s, and then dives headlong into completely preposterous scheming. Right before the security guard takes six bullets he's giving Chris advice on how to live his life. Serious, then silly. The same thing occurs with the criminals, who go into violent hysterics and then come back from the dead like in a bad soap opera.
This tendency of the many characters to not stay dead for long could have been played for laughs in a more deft film. But in Empire State it's to set up plot twists that I could have seen coming if I didn't take for granted that this head-shot person was dead. Sometimes it's also played for cheap emotional effect. There's a cute German Shepard who guards the money room. To prove how bad he is, one of the characters shoots the dog only to find out later that the dog was merely unconscious. "But he was alive all along" is a device that should be used rarely, not as an Act by Act guideline.
As if the stupid plot wasn't enough, Empire State is more than happy to shove reminders that the film takes place in the '80s. It doesn't seem that there was budget to license the soundtrack, but you'd better believe that the costumes and decor are displayed predominantly. The dialogue makes strong reference to the era as well, making sure that people are talking about cocaine and the buying power of twenty-five grand as much as possible. There's no effort to just let the era inform the scene, instead it's gaudily splashed all over it.
Finally there's the issue of the performances. Hemsworth has the stoically bland family performance gene, reacted with little emotion to the absurd scenarios his idiot friend keeps pulling him into. Johnson isn't able to enliven the film at all, aside from tossing in an odd chuckle or two to fill the soundtrack with something other than continuous raw exposition. Then there's the matter of Angarano, who delivers a strong contender for the worst performance of the year. He tries to be a nervous funny guy with an idiotic violent streak but comes across as a shrill child who doesn't have control of the tone of any scene that he's in.
Empire State is a wasteland dressed up in some garish accoutrements from the '80s. Not even Johnson can find something fun about the film. That, my friends, is the truest sign of a dire production.
Directed by Dito Montiel.
Screenplay written by Adam Mazer.
Starring Dwayne Johnson and Liam Hemsworth.