Don't be fooled by Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's predominance on the box cover, nor by the exploding security truck on the back. 'Empire State' is not an action movie, and while both 'The Rock' and that exploding vehicle are in the film, both are smaller pieces of a much larger story.
'Empire State' is based on the true story of Chris Potamitis (played here by Liam Hemsworth), who was part of the largest cash heist in U.S. history (roughly $11 million). The movie is essentially the story through Chris' point of view, as we see how his desire to live the good life gets in the way of his common sense.
The movie introduces us to Potamitis as a typical young man growing up in New York City in the early 1980s. His real desire is to become a police officer, but thanks to a drug bust he got caught up in with his best friend Eddie (a constantly wired Michael Angarano, giving the movie's best performance) when they were younger, he can't get into the police program. So instead, Chris interviews for and gets a job as an armed security officer for an armored truck company. He learns the tricks of the trade through his assigned partner (played by Michael Rispoli), including how unguarded and poorly watched the bags of money are that are stored at the company's building.
Dwayne Johnson takes on the supporting role of detective James Ransone, whose first encounter with Chris is following an attempted robbery of the truck Chris is working on, which results in his partner getting shot. As a result of the incident, the security company takes Chris off of the truck and assigns him to the overnight desk job guarding the money in the company's building – giving him the perfect opportunity to steal cash, knowing what he already knows about the lax security. In his first attempt, Chris just steals from one bag to see if he can get away with it, but he makes the mistake of telling Eddie and a few of his friends about it. Chris helps plot out how the heist should be done, but things spin out of control both during and after the heist, thanks largely in part to Eddie's desire for the money and a borderline sociopathic personality.
As I noted above, 'Empire State' is far from an action movie, although it seems to have been marketed that way. Aside from the sequence where Chris' partner gets shot and a few instances of gunplay scattered across the story, this is mostly a drama. The most action Dwayne Johnson sees is a short gun battle that happens about midway through the movie. Other than that, this is really just a chance for Dwayne to try out his acting skills in a much smaller role than we're used to seeing him in. As for Emma Roberts, her presence on the box cover makes no sense (other than for name recognition) as her role in this title (as a friend of Chris and a waitress at a diner he frequents) is limited to just a few short scenes.
The real reasons to see 'Empire State' are for the performances by Liam Hemsworth and Michael Angarano. Hemsworth proves he has the chops to take on a leading role in a movie, while Angarano seems to be channeling a young Sam Rockwell in his performance as Eddie (who always seems to be over-caffeinated). Michael Rispoli, playing Chris' partner when he's first hired by the security company, is also very good here – although he's only in a very small portion of the story.
In the end, 'Empire State' doesn't quite work, but it comes awfully close. The movie needed to do a better job developing Chris' character and exactly why he's open to stealing so much money in the first place. There are hints that he both feels screwed by the system and bitter over the treatment of his partner by the company (to say any more would be spoilers), but it still doesn't bridge the gap between a man who wants to be a police officer when the movie opens to one that is participating in grand larceny not very long thereafter.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Empire State' makes its debut on Blu-ray in an eco-friendly keepcase with a slightly embossed slipcover that matches the slick. The keepcase houses a single 25GB disc, along with an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet digital version of the movie. The Blu-ray is front-loaded with trailers for Snitch, Freelancers, and Fire with Fire, plus a promotional ad for the Epix premium channel. The menu is a combination of moving stills of the characters along with a montage of footage from the film inside a rectangle that also moves across the screen. Menu options are along the bottom, then open up to more options on the left side of the screen once a selection is made.
Shot digitally on the Arri Alexa Plus camera, 'Empire State' looks pretty good on Blu-ray with a few aesthetic issues that really have more to do with the director's/director of photography's choices than with the actual transfer. The overall look of the movie has a slightly oversaturated appearance, which sometimes leaves the actors with an orange hue rather than naturally-looking skin tones, depending on the scene/shot. Viewers will also notice that in many scenes, the backgrounds have been blurred. This is primarily due to the fact that, since 'Empire State' is set in the 80s, the director wanted to hide any noticeable references to the modern day. It also is an attempt to mask the fact that much of the movie, set in New York City, was actually shot in New Orleans.
Despite the look of the movie as described above, details (other those blurred backgrounds in spots) are sharp, and I didn't detect instances of artifacting or aliasing. Black levels are, for the most part, pretty strong.
As noted in my review of the movie above, for a film featuring Dwayne Johnson, 'Empire State' actually has little in the way of action sequences. Therefore, the English 5.1 DTS-Master Audio track isn't always obvious, but it is pretty active throughout the movie, with frequent use of the rear speakers. There are a few instances of action and gunplay in the film, and these are the points where directionality is most noticeable. Dynamic range is good, and there's a nice balance between the soundtrack, dialogue, and background noises in the movie.
In addition to the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, the disc also contains a DTS-HD Master Audio Sound Check option, to make sure one's speakers are properly set up. Subtitles are also available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
'Empire State' falls a little short of being a recommended movie, but with some solid performances and decent direction, it's certainly worth at least one viewing. The fact that it's a period piece and based on an actual event adds to the movie's appeal. It's not the kind of title you'd expect to find 'The Rock' in, but it's one of his better (albeit brief) performances. Give it a rent.