As the noughties descended into disillusionment over crippling debt and record unemployment, recalling the optimism of the eighties is refreshing.  However, past the initial exuberance of the decade shown in TV’s Glory Daze (2010), lies a graveyard brimming with faux pas.  Here, buried under the shell suits and shoulder pads, is a British film so bad it’s not funny.

Empire State (1988) is a crime drama built around an East End nightclub, housed in a crumbling Docklands area that’s ripe for redevelopment.  In an era buoyed by Thatcherite reform, the rich and desperate clash over racketeering rights in this forgotten wasteland.  All the while, a liberated gay community finds freedom of expression in its club culture.

The first thing that hits you is the acting – or rather, the lack of it – calling into question British director Ron Peck’s casting nous.  His decision to use predominantly amateur or non-actors proves hilarious for all the wrong reasons.  While many will find the cheesy exchanges of dialogue a laugh, some will find their patience running out with so many miscast roles.

Martin Landau is probably the only actor you will recognise, whose minor role has more substance than all the other characters combined.  One scene involves his rich tycoon exploring the ramshackle dwellings of poor families that border his redevelopment – a hint of social commentary ashamedly unexplored.  Elsewhere, the honours for the acting hall of shame go to Lee Drysdale whose cardboard delivery of a cocky rent boy scrapes the barrel of annoyance.

Much like Crash (2004), Empire State attempts to juggle intersecting stories, offering a rounded perspective of an issue and time.  However, Peck’s co-written plot squashes so many characters in achingly slow scenes that any semblance of connectivity is lost.  The gay club culture scenes are an interesting aside with their casual sexuality resembling TV’s Queer as Folk (1999), but suffer amongst the incoherent narrative.

A further two elements stand out for their sheer audacity and experimentation gone awry.  A montage of muscular bodies soaping themselves in the shower is simply bizarre, while an early over-reliance on helicopter-panning camerawork is equally ill-fitting.  While these scenes add to the ‘so bad it’s good’ argument, they offer nothing to the story and prompt further questioning of this film’s message.

Empire State does possess some eighties charm and historical curiosity with its pre-development Docklands, but its execution is flawed.  Consequently, the plot tries to cover too much ground, leaving the few interesting stories of gay liberation and the area’s regeneration under-represented.  With peers offering critically acclaimed slices of London during this fascinating decade such as Mona Lisa (1986), Empire State disappoints so much it hurts.


1988 UK, Cert 18, 98mins English
Empire State is out now on Network Releasing