Blu-ray Review: EMPIRE STATE - Slow, Stacked With Terrible Performances

There can€™t be many who remember Ron Peck€™s clubland spectacular and that€™s surprising; it€™s atrocious. We can€™t know with any certainty how human beings lived in the 1980's but we can infer that the film€™s meandering nature and the am-dram turns would have baffled them. What, you may ask, is Empire State about? It€™s easier to pose the question than to answer it. Ostensibly it€™s the crime movie that Robert Altman would have made were he a soak; a character heavy, intersecting plot-fest in which events converge at the titular East End nightclub. Therein, flanked by walls that look like forensic experts have brushed them for traces of ejaculate, each character arc plays out, though not necessarily to any discernable conclusion. There€™s the lonely heart who€™s come to meet a blind date, a boy who looks like the Geordie Flash Gordon, seeking his missing friend, the journalist following up on the disappearance of two kids, the old school club owner who€™s being pushed out by a yuppie in a larger man€™s suit, the slut behind the bar who€™s seeing both a bouncer and a debt ridden misfit with a gun whose dressing gown makes him look like a geisha. Away from the club there€™s a sub-plot involving a rent boy and an American businessman, in echoes of The Long Good Friday, played by no less than Martin Landau, who€™s come to survey the derelict Docklands in anticipation of a development deal. How, you may ask, is this tied to everything else? Well, it€™s hard to know, because although Peck and co-writer Mark Ayres have plotted a link to the yuppie and his confederates, the strain put on the movie from slow scene after slow scene, causes the bridges between characters to buckle and break. However, hold on to your cocktail because connoisseurs of bad movies will find much to love in this forgotten thriller. Peck€™s decision to use non-professional actors to bulk out the cast may seem unduly altruistic to many of us, not to mention thrift, but there€™s no denying that this decision does much to make many scenes the equal of the funniest moments ever committed to celluloid. Seen this way Empire State is an embarrassment of riches. Elizabeth Hickling€™s leggy bitch Cheryl is great fun, pouting her way through most of her scenes and whose emotionless delivery, possibly a wry comment on the inhuman character of Thatcherite Britain, sets the bar for the rest of the cast, many of whom seem so terrified by the camera that you almost want to reach through the screen and hold their hand. However it€™s Lee Drysdale as an uproariously funny automaton-like rent boy that steals the show. His vacillating voice, vacant stare and cardboard characterisation cracks ribs. It might just be the worst performance ever recorded in any medium, ever. What Martin Landau must have thought as the two played opposite each other is not known but his agent is still in hiding. Many scenes live as long in the memory as they do on screen, which is a very long time indeed. There€™s a wonderfully pointless cross-gender montage, in which both male and female characters are seen soaping themselves up in the shower in preparation for their night out, a gun rampage that seems to have been induced by watching too many couples having sex in the back of parked cars and a magnificent bare knuckle fight between a porcine middle aged boxer and a diminutive oriental martial artist. This standout sequence, worth the price of admission alone, is a bloody, almost contact free affair, the most improbable East End match up of the last, or indeed any century. Empire State€™s also notable for its treatment of homosexuality. Casual for its day and in no way in service to the plot, it€™s ever in the background which may explain, in the light of Maggie€™s Section 28 law, why I never saw this movie as a treat in junior school. Instead we were given the far less suggestive Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Initially you€™re tempted to applaud Peck for being so blasé, after all it€™s refreshing to see gay characters included, shorn of any political or obvious didactic intent, but the film is so carefree in its plotting and many of the characters so anonymous, that it€™s impossible to know what Peck€™s true intensions were. The trailer may have promised, €œLondon, like you€™ve seen it before€ but the real reason to seek out this 80's curio is for the London you used to know. Peck was in no hurry to move the story on and consequently you€™re treated to luxurious shots of a lost city €“ the old docklands, dilapidated wharfs and new housing springing up alongside the Thames during a period where a city that had been in decline since the sixties was thought to be on the turn. There€™s even a hint of social comment as Landau surveys the impoverished neighbourhoods to be blocked out by his proposed business deal, noting the unemployment and social decay. You think of Canary Wharf and an East End that€™s still in need of regeneration today. Ultimately it€™s the sheer datedness of the thing that demands your attention. One can imagine how zeitgeisty it all must have seemed at the time - hedonism, big business, drugs, the new London and lashings of Jimmy Somerville. This is a world where Andy and Fergie postcards could still tempt tourists, where you showed your commitment to US style capitalism by driving a classic American car and where there was still a Wimpy in Piccadilly Circus. That world has passed away but thanks to Empire State the residue remains. Was it a state of the nation address that got drowned out by Somerville€™s vocals? We may never know but they certainly don€™t make them like this anymore.

Quality

Thanks to a pristine transfer, those colourful Eighties fashions have never looked so good. The Blu-ray brings the movie to horrible life. Hell, it probably didn€™t look this good on release. In fact, given the quality of many of the countries cinemas at this time, that€™s almost a certainty. If you can see the movie a little too well, or don€™t think your friends or partner are ready for the HD version, the pack also comes with a DVD version for trainee eyes.

Extras

Given the film€™s age it€™s no shock that the disc lacks bountiful extras. However there€™s a gem in the shape of a segment on C4€™s €œRight to Reply€ in which poor Ron Peck is savaged by an outraged Father who sat down to watch this gangland thriller with his family after 9pm, only to find himself confronted by the shock of bad language and violence. Not a word about Lee Drysdale though. € Commentary with Ron Peck and Mark Ayres € Screen tests, rehearsals & improvisations € Nightclub tests (x3) € Deleted Scenes (x2) € Audio research interviews by Ron Peck € €œRight To Reply€, Channel Four (in response to the first TV screening of 12th October 1989) € PDF cast list, director€™s notes, annotated screenplay and press coverage from 1987. Empire State was released on duel Blu-ray & DVD yesterday.
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