Chris Potamitis was able to pull of the biggest heist in U.S. history back in 1982, lifting $8 million from the armored car company he worked for.  An elaborate caper such as that surely took a lot of planning, but in the film adaptation of Potamitis’ story, the job comes off as too easy and not all that impressive.

“Empire State” is the true story of the heist told 30 years later, with a few creative liberties taken, of course.  The cover art for the DVD suggest that this is a Dwayne Johnson action vehicle, but he is really a secondary player in this straight to DVD release.  Emma Roberts (“We’re the Millers”) is also strongly billed but plays an even more minor role.  Clearly, Johnson and Roberts were brought in to do as little as possible to lend some name value to the movie.

The true lead is Liam Hemsworth (“The Hunger Games”), who plays Chris Potamatis, a wannabe cop who gets turned down by the force for his past record and is forced to take a low paying gig as a security guard for Empire State Armored Truck Company.  It doesn’t take him long to learn that this is company isn’t as secure as one would expect and he can see gaping holes in the operations and rather than seeing it as a hassle at his job, Chris along with his delinquent pal Eddie, decide to capitalize on it.

What makes for a great heist movie is all of the planning, recruiting and twists that happen along the road to the actual heist.  The “Ocean’s” movies are textbook examples of this format.  All of this fun leading up to the job seem to be missing from “Empire State” which leaves you feeling a little flat once the heist is done.  You could say that the real drama comes in trying not to get caught but I see it as at best a missed opportunity and at worst sloppy storytelling.

We don’t really see much of Johnson, aside from a brief flash forward at the opening of the movie, until the halfway point. Fortunately, a little bit of Dwayne is better than no Dwayne at all and it’s from this point that “Empire State” really starts to get interesting, as while there isn’t much to Johnson’s role as lead detective James Ransone, he is still able to carry this movie on his back as it limps to the finish line.  Johnson’s role is generic and the dialogue comes off a little forced suggesting a lack of preparation, but his natural charisma and physical presence offset much of that.

Hemsworth is serviceable as the lead but there is some ambiguity as to how we as viewers should feel about him.  Is he a slimeball criminal, as the interviews with real life Potamitis suggest? Or is he a sympathetic figure who got in over his head thanks to a greedy criminal friend?  Some clarity on this character’s…well…character would have helped engage viewers more effectively.

Direction from Dito Montiel (“Fighting”) is well done considering what he was trying to accomplish on an $11 million budget that included Dwayne Johnson on the payroll.  There are a lot of details that go in to a film when it’s set a few decades in the past.  People and places look generally similar to how they do today but the little things, like the styles of cars, technology people use, and what businesses were in existence need to have attention paid to them or the movie will come off as a joke.

“Empire State” looks good on DVD, but maybe a little too dark for my liking.  Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, many of the interior scenes are overly dark, which eliminates detail and actually makes it hard to distinguish characters’ faces from each other.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio track sounds very good.  Explosions boom well, the 80’s style soundtrack packs a good punch, and dialogue is always clear.

Special Features:
The strongest special feature on this disc is the aforementioned interview with the real life Chris Potamitis.  You get a better feel for who this guy is and what makes him tick in this 15 minute interview than you do from watching the entire 94 minute feature.  I strongly suggest watching the interview, even if you don’t enjoy the movie.  From watching it, I got the impression that Potamitis is proud of what he accomplished, and he wants people to think he still has the money, but won’t come out and say it.  He definitely wants to keep people guessing.

Other special features include commentary with Montiel, the usual deleted scenes and some interviews with the cast and crew.

Final Thoughts:
“Empire State” has a lot going for it, a great, real life crime story to tell with a strong cast with name value.  While it seems like a great movie on paper, in execution, it’s a bit of a flop.  The excitement and suspense that normally makes a heist movie so great are largely absent so instead of sitting on the edge of your seat, you’re kind of sitting back just going along for the ride.  The name value is there, but the biggest stars in the movie are relegated to bit parts, which is especially unfortunate in the case of Roberts, whose star is really growing this year, so it would have been nice to see her in a heftier role.  All in all, “Empire State” drew u a pretty good plan, recruited a good team, but couldn’t quite get the job done.