Pete’s Peek | The naïve charm of Ron Peck’s 1980s-set gangland thriller Empire State

Did you know that back in 1986 a pint in a London boozer cost just £1.40? Well if you fancy taking a step back in time then take a peek at Empire State. Released in 1988 by Ron Peck, who directed the daring gay-themed movie Nighthawks a decade earlier, Empire State was the film-maker’s attempt at a modern film noir.

The film opens with a pretty young woman (played by Rex Harrison’s granddaughter, Cathryn), dressed in shimmering blue dress and high heels, waking up in a crashed car. She heads through deserted London streets to the offices of a newspaper to begin work on a story. But hers is not the only story told here. There’s a whole host of characters in this tale of old-world gangsters, East End rent boys and shady Yuppie property developers.

The characters are many: Danny (Jamie Foreman) is a penniless cab driver who turns to his boxer brother Billy for money. Billy works for Empire State club owner Frank (Ray McAnally), an old time East End gangster out to destroy a Yuppie protégé. In this mix is Martin Landau’s visiting American businessman Chuck, who hires the services of a male prostitute called Jonnie; a young lad from Newcastle looking for a missing mate; and a Time Out-styled journalist (Lorcan Cranitch) looking for a juicy story.

Empire State is very 1980s. It’s also a strange hybrid of avant-garde music video (the Pet Shop Boys film It Couldn’t Happen Here springs to mind) and modern-day thriller. But it doesn’t quite hang together. Whether Peck is playing safe is unknown; but Empire State certainly lacks the hard edge we come to expect from gangster-themed films these days. But while it lacks the grittiness of films like The Long Good Friday (whose story it resembles) and the daring hard edge of Taxi zum Klo (now there’s a film to lay bare gay culture in the 1980s), it does have a naïve charm.

Empire State feels very nostalgic watching it two decades on from its release. It’s also one of the few British films to capture London’s Docklands area before its regeneration, making it a great snapshot (however staged) onto a world that has been resigned to the history books. The fashions, however, have lived on – in the streets of Shoreditch and Dalston, just a short distance from another part of East London that’s undergoing a big facelift in time for next year’s Olympics. Could be a film in that, too!

Empire State is out now on Blu-ray and DVD

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