In the mid 1980s, a film director decided to make an East-End gangster movie, and set it in the then developing docklands area.

It’s also dire — and yet, worth watching as it has finally been released on DVD more than 20 years after its fairly badly received début on Channel 4.

2377I first saw it probably on its début screening at a time when Ch4 and BBC2 were throwing a fairly decent amount of money and time at the British film industry, with frankly fairly mixed results.

For some reason, this film stuck with me. A few years later I couldn’t recall the name of it, but knew it stared Martin Landau as a bi-sexual businessman with a kink for being beaten up. So I picked up the IMDB of its time, Halliwell’s Film Guide, and basically started at page 1, and worked my way through each listing looking for the film.

Fortunately, with the name Empire State, it didn’t take too many evenings to locate it. But the film was not available on VHS. Ever so often I have remembered the film, and checked if it had ever been released — and a recent check showed that indeed it has finally been put out on DVD. With extras.

Ever have one of those memorable films seen or books read as a kid that made a big impression on you at the time and as an adult you naively think to read/watch it again? Then realise that actually, it was bloody awful?

Empire State is that revelation.

But, stick with me, there is something good about it — and that is the scenery. This was filmed, largely indoors, but had a few big set piece outdoor scenes, including a stunning helicopter flight over London’s docklands as it was in probably 1986.


When released, the film was criticized for the high levels of violence in it, even though really there are only two modestly violent scenes, by our standards.

Anyway, this is a film with probably one or two too many subplots that left me at the end struggling to remember the names of the various characters as there are just too many key people in the film.

The cocky rent-boy with dreams of escaping to the USA; the American who is described as a billionaire; a young businessman seeking to make his fortune; a gold digging lady; the east-end gangster fixing boxing batches; the boxer and his brother; the journalist; the mysterious Micky who’s name seems to scare everyone; the sullen Northern lad.

Too much.

But oh dear gods, the acting. This is a film with a lot of actors in it, but not a lot of acting. In fact it is downright bloody awful. Maybe four characters are any good, and this is partially explained in the DVD extras — where it is revealed that the film is made up of a mix of actors and amateurs, and some of them play leading roles.

It shows. Unfortunately, it’s local village hall Amateur Dramatics acting rather than Bad Film acting, where the acting is watchable for being over the top. This is just really bad and almost painful to watch in places.

Ray McAnally is probably the only refreshing part in the whole film.

But having said all that, if you can piece all the sub-plots together, and suspend your disbelief at the acting for a while, there is underneath it not a bad idea for a film. The thumping 1980s clubland music, the nostalgia for the clothes, and somewhat upbeat tempo in places can make the film amusingly enjoyable in places — especially if you are not entirely sober by the time you watch it.

Considering its reputation for violent scenes, maybe it was shown late at night, when I would have probably been deep under the influence of Bacchus, and that’s why I thought it was a great film.

However, it’s the location shots that should make this a film that everyone should watch at least once. Only a few minutes worth, but oh, that car ride along the derelict docks and the helicopter ride over London is worth all the pain of watching the rest.

In fact, had they put all the unused helicopter footage and the car drives around docklands on the DVD, I’d be screaming to go out and buy it for that alone. Sadly they put a load of other fluff on there instead. Argh!

Empire State is available as a DVD/BlueRay combo.










And here is the film’s vision of what Canary Wharf would look like with “The American’s” investment.




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  1. vladski says:

    This is a real time capsule of an article.I’d love to see some side-by-side shots of then and now.

    I have a vague memory of being down there around about that kind of time frame for ‘formula 1 boat racing’ or something similar…

  2. Spencer Richards says:

    Been watching a few repeats of Sweeney and Minder on ITV4 for the same reason, soem of the episodes are quite entertaining but the locations, pubs etc, like a social history.

  3. @RobHofficial says:

    Great stuff as usual Ian. I first visited Docklands in 1988 when looking for work, it wasn’t as empty as the pics above but it wasn’t far off! It’s amazing what’s happened there in the past 30 years.

  4. Joseph says:

    It’s perhaps worth reminding people that the scenes of street combat in Full Metal Jacket, supposedly set in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, were filmed in parts of Docklands where large-scale demolition was then in progress.

    • Rob C says:

      That was the old Beckton Gas Works, and was at one time doe of the most contaminated land in the UK.

  5. Ivan Pope says:

    My sister lived on the ‘Dogs’ in the late seventies, in a tower block, Midship Point, 13th floor. The Isle of Dogs at the time was like a little country separated from the rest of the country. Because it was dockland, the roads as you entered the isle were lined with very high walls. On a wall at the entry was a huge sign ‘Welcome to the Isle of Dogs’. Someone had painted a big ‘You’re …’ in front.
    The place was fairly empty, or fairly working class. My sister got the flat as it was a ‘hard to let’. I used to bunk of school and go stay with her. I loved that place. From her flat you could look down into the empty docks. It was before any of the building works that you can see above – no light railway or glass buildings, just the remains of industry and wood merchants along the docks.
    And for all that, the place was a very human world. The pubs were great fun, the dying dregs of a dying age. There would be singalongs around the old joanna in the evenings, lockins and, on Sundays, free sandwiches on the bar. A real community lived there. It was stripped away by Thatcher and the Docklands Development Corporation in the eighties, by the loadsamoney culture and the city buildings that arrived. But for a short while in the seventies, to me, it was the centre of the world.

  6. Graham says:

    That last image of the ‘proposed’ Canary Wharf intrigues me. Was it based (in any way) on actual proposals for the area or was it made up out of the whole cloth…?

  7. ZX says:

    South Quay Plaza (building 1 and 2?), which are extensively featured in the film when they were still being finished are to be demolished and replaced very soon. Seems such a waste – I really like their postmodern NY style, but I guess planners/developers hate the 80s! Skylines Village, the low-rise development featured in the same sequence of the film has been on the edge for a while, too, and will probably come down at some point.

    I think they should preserve some of the docklands 80s history (by keeping buildings) for future generations to see.

  8. david thomas says:

    remember the albert dock seeing the cranes going week by week I wonder what those old dockers would think seeing london airport in the royal docks Idont care what anyone says the dockers could graft

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