Empire State

cast: Ray McAnally, Martin Landau, Cathryn Harrison, Emily Bolton, and Lorcan Cranitch

director: Ron Peck

98 minutes (18) 1987
widescreen ratio 16:9
Network DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by Paul Higson

Empire State

The British film industry was seriously floundering by the mid-1980s. Hollywood came over here erecting multiplex cinemas and began filling the many screens with their films and their stars. Most of the decade was in a pop frenzy dominated by comedy, action/ adventure, and not particularly serious horror fantasies. John Hughes knocked out screenplays, sometimes in a weekend, and his shouts to the American teenager were responded to by youth everywhere. From these films came a so-dubbed ‘brat pack’ of actors, some of whom were teenagers in Sixteen Candles (Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, 16 playing 16) while others, like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, were considerably older.

They would ride this wave of popularity for most of ten years but the real stars would come from the periphery, the actors who had bit roles in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (Charlie Sheen), Pretty In Pink (Jon Cryer), and Weird Science (Robert Downey Jr) who would become some of the highest earning television and film actors today. Matthew Broderick (Inspector Gadget, Godzilla) was the only actor with a periodical hit into the noughties, but even he has had an unusually long period of invisibility. In 1987, the inestimable value of the brat pack was screamingly apparent and, in the UK, certain quarters had the notion that our flagging film industry could do with an equivalent dream team of young limbs, talent obligatory.

Out of this came ‘the Brit pack’, but there was some confusion as to who the young featured players might be and the timing had to be right and the films had to be there. If anything there seemed to be two campaigns using the same ploy, and coming at it from different directions there was a definition crash which threatened a result. Some would claim that the Brit pack consisted of the privileged crowd that populated both the Merchant-Ivory productions and the often more innocuous, upbeat modern cinema that we were trying to release: included in this roster were Julian Sands, the McGann brothers, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ray Winstone, Phil Daniels, Richard E. Grant, Greta Scaatchi, Natasha Richardson, Jane Snowden, and Joanna Pacula. The label was finally used with press coverage for Ron Peck’s Empire State just as cinema slipped out of our grasp.

Jamie Foreman, Emily Bolton, Elizabeth Hickling, Glen Murphy and the rest of the largely unknown cast were pitched as the future of British film. But the industry sunk deeper into its own recession and the output was sporadic and the cast would splinter in other directions, with the odd success story, some into television, and others into obscurity. At the time, Bolton was possibly the biggest name in the cast following her lengthy stint across three series of Tenko (1981-4). Her career would go nowhere after Empire State. Others were more fortunate, particularly in their televisual careers. Foreman has become a goggle-box regular with occasional film roles of note.

Lorcan Cranitch would become an actor known for edgy roles following his unpredictable turn as a detective gone rapist over several series of Cracker. Perry Fenwick would fall into a long standing role in EastEnders; Murphy became a Bluewatch pin-up with a decade of fire-fighting heroics in London’s Burning (1988-2002), and Gary Webster the new Minder (1991-4). Pay attention and one of the barmaids is a very young Sadie Frost. Unfortunately, it did not help that Empire State was a mediocre jumble. It didn’t help the actors into superstardom and it didn’t encourage faith in the British film industry, much to the embarrassment of the BFI production division.

Peck admits that the model for Empire State comes from Robert Altman, of a community and an ensemble cast. There are no leads but 20 prominent interconnecting characters in an East End milieu dominated by business transactions, gangland rivalry, and the almost compulsory prostitution of bodies and ideals. The action takes place over a 24-four hour period with brummie refugee Peter (Jason Hoganson) arriving at Euston Station armed with a postcard from his friend who works the door at the Empire State night club. We never meet the doorman as he is already gone, seemingly fatally disposed of as a liability following his role in redistributing drugs which has resulted in the death of two kids in the Empire State toilets. Danny (Foreman) and Cheryl (Hickling) are living in the dead man’s pad and they and everyone working at Empire State seem to be in on the fact that the missing bouncer is now dozing in the Thames mud.

A wealthy American investor, Church (Martin Landau) has been flown in to tempt into the action on the wharf, a regeneration project that would extend the canal system aesthetically creating a waterway city, a modern Venice. Who needs a new Venice though, questions Church, when the original still exists, and as it is sinking and crumbling into Italian waters what kind of an advertisement is that for this new project. Ill-employed references to other epic landscapes litter the film; a magazine called ‘Metropolis’, the waterside project referred to as an ‘El Dorado’ and the name of the starring nightclub itself.

Steering everything into place is Paul (Ian Sears) an ex-rent-boy who sees himself as the new challenger to the East End gangland throne, and out to oust the much older resident kingpin Frank (Ray McAnally). The presence of McAnally has a further unfortunate resonance as some viewers may be reminded of his TV role as Spindoe with which Empire State badly compares. Spindoe was written by Robin Chapman who also created Big Breadwinner Hog and these sleazy murderous worlds are certainly an inspiration to Peck. Sadly, Peck does not have Chapman’s wicked and acerbic ability for dialogue and character.

Paul arranges for cocky rent-boy Johnny (Lee Drysdale) to visit Church and sweeten him up for the transaction but Church has already come to a conclusion on the whole enterprise. It is sloppily conceived, yuppie greed displacing common sense. Church jumps ship and, when he is a no show, the investors get nasty with Paul. With that Frank smells blood, while a jilted and dejected Danny drunkenly loiters with a shotgun in his holdall with the night’s takings his target if he is to win back Cheryl.

Peck had achieved earlier notoriety with his drama Nighthawks, a breakthrough British film about gay lifestyle. Peck could not, though, be called a visionary director. Attempting to ‘be realistic’ he instead only captures what was so naff about the period in the music, fashion, design and attitudes. Capture it he does, but that still does not equate to a believable place. It took two years to get the film to the shooting stage during which time rehearsals had taken place with professional and non-professional actors, developing the characters. Despite the lengthy period of character development there is little truly nuanced about most of the occupants of this demi-monde.

Poor set designs mean that the night club is unconvincing, though the director tells us that he was often asked by Americans where exactly Empire State was located and whether or not it was for sale. Exterior locations are recognisable from contemporaneous movie fare shot in the locale. Filmed on the docks, many of the crew got sick of the sight of the place having just stepped off Full Metal Jacket (1987), shot nearby. The waterside crane is familiar from Hellraiser (1986). Ronan Vibert puts in a harmless early appearance as a yuppie investor, and near deserted streets feature that he will himself traipse 20 years later in The Last Seven. Interiors are shot at the Limehouse Studios and the horrible soundtrack is dominated by Sarah Jane Morris and Jimmy Somerville, often in nightclub scenes and over atrociously put together montages like the one in which people prepare for a night out: from showering to pulling on clothes to shoving coke up their noses.

Sets are overly lit. Some of the performances are weak, but Martin Landau is as value for money as ever. The standout performance, however, comes from Drysdale, a walking, nay sauntering, ‘knowledge’ of the city, a survivalist, looking for an out just as he is recruiting others in. Drysdale is the only survivor from the rehearsal amateurs. Too remarkable to be expendable, the director fought tooth and nail to get him into the film at a time when the unions were tight and stripping was the best way for an actress to get an Equity card. Landau, the professional with a 40-year Hollywood background, and Drysdale the first timer, make for a fascinating pairing in the latter part of the film. Bringing them together makes for the movie highlight but it is also harmful to the rest of the film as their combined excellence puts everything and everyone down a further notch.

Network provides a raft of extras beginning with two extended scenes (rather than the deleted scenes as advertised). There are 33 minutes of footage from the 1984-6 rehearsal process as Drysdale, Jimmy Flint, and Hoganson explore and shape their characters with the assistance of Stephen Thrower, Phil Williamson, Rachel Nicholas James, and Mark Ayres. This runs into an additional nine minutes of soundless footage testing potential bar locations. The test and research element continues with a 91-minute audio interview with a rent-boy whose experiences formed the basis of the character named Peter.

The film was screened on Channel Four two years later and became the object of viewer criticism in an edition of the same channel’s Right To Reply screened on 12th October 1989. The relevant seven minutes of that programme are included. In it, viewer Lesley Burns pops into the video-box with her baby held to her shoulder. As she speaks the child begins to look like a prop as she reports tuning into the film as it started nine o’clock, one evening. “We got the shock of our lives. The language was disgusting, so we changed to another channel. We turned back (oh?) to the film later hoping that it would have improved (yeah right!) but to our horror it had got even worse. The violence was so bad I felt literally sick. There is enough violence and bad language in the world already.”

Ron Peck is invited into the studio and pitted against viewer, Victor Mitchell “a family man who has brought up two children.” The offended viewers are laughable, and Peck makes a sensible figure with logical arguments in opposition to them. He responds that the content is an attempt to be realistic (in which he failed) and a “serious attempt to catch a shift in Britain” one of self-seeking and “an appetite for greed” (in which he could be said to have been successful). Sadly, and ultimately, Peck didn’t have the skills to render his objectives successfully to film, and Empire State is a dreary example of exploitation filmmaking at the tail end of the 1980s.