After the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the American crime genre abounded in pop-cultural references, endless monologues, and graphic and quasi-comic violence that attempted to advertise filmmakers’ debauched hipster bona fides. Based on City of Industry’s heist plot and cooler-than-cool tough-guy poster, it would be logical to assume that the film belongs to this trend, though it’s an atmospheric trip to hell that owes less to Quentin Tarantino than to writers like Donald Westlake and films like Point Blank.
A British journeyman who directed the BBC production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Ghost Story, and Hamburger Hill, John Irvin isn’t a neophyte desperate to prove his chops, but an artist who prizes the sort of sturdy and un-ostentatious professionalism that’s nearly absent from contemporary mainstream American cinema these days. The director invests City of Industry with a certain chilliness, cooling the macho melodramatics that’re inherent in a tale of men killing one another over stolen merchandise. Honoring the film’s title, Irvin lingers on Los Angeles landscapes, allowing the highways, twisting bridges, oil rigs, and gaudy shopping malls to serve as found metaphors for the criminal underworld that coexists within polite society.
When Roy (Harvey Keitel) arrives in Palm Springs off a bus to begin planning a jewel caper, he’s accorded the sort of unadorned, casually dignified entrance that’s merited by an actor of Keitel’s gravitas. Irvin pans to Roy standing in front of the bus in a suit with ramrod straight physicality, which suggests that the character’s either ex-military, an ex-con, or a supernatural killer. Based on the wearied and matter-of-fact expression on Keitel’s face, this is clearly a man who’s ridden many uncomfortable buses and slept in countless anonymous motels while chain smoking and chain drinking coffee and booze. In terms of understanding the immense power of Keitel as a cinematic image, Irvin is nearly as astute as Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara.
We’re led to assume that the film is an ensemble narrative in which a group of colorful characters steal diamonds and get themselves into hot water. The leader of the group is Roy’s brother, Lee, who’s played by Timothy Hutton in one of his bids to muddy his earnest image. Jorge (Wade Dominguez) is a stick-up man who’s facing prison for carrying a firearm, and he has a wife, Rachel (Famke Janssen), who’s wondering how she’s going to care for their children. And there’s the requisite flakey hotshot, Skip (Stephen Dorff). The men are clichés that Irvin presents to the audience without bashfulness or irony, which is almost daring in the context of a cinema at the height of Tarantino fever. Irvin and screenwriter Ken Solarz honor the pleasures of genre archetypes, lowering our guard before dropping the hammer.
The film initially suggests that Keitel is a supporting player, a legend legitimizing a low-budget film with his presence in a role of few words. But City of Industry actually contains one of the actor’s most ferocious lead performances—a succinct haiku of desperation and loneliness. The narrative somewhat resembles those of The Searchers, Hardcore, and other films that concern a descent into a netherworld to exact a sense of fleeting closure and clarity. The violence is clipped, gross, authentically upsetting, and allowed to sully Roy as he reconnects with an inner monster while maintaining a haunting sense of what might pass in some circles for innocence. Irvin and Keitel invest a familiar story with precise and intimate pulp grandeur.
The image boasts sharp colors, particularly the neon hues that permeate the lurid settings. Textures are also sharp, which is important to a film this dependent on its star's visage. There's some grit and grain, and the whites are sometimes shrill, but these small blemishes are true to the film's aesthetic. City of Industry is supposed to look a little gaudy, though this appearance is offset by the beautiful and vividly refurbished shots of the Los Angeles architecture. The soundtrack is rich in beatings and gunshots, which are presented with a strong sense of bass. Smaller effects also subtly shine, such as the sounds of footsteps, the lighting of cigarettes, and the tapping of fingertips on cheap fold-out tables.
The audio commentary by Steve Mitchell, director of King Cohen, and film historian Nathaniel Thompson is an agreeably low-key affair, with riffs on Los Angeles locations, the careers of the cast, and the 1990s American crime-film scene. The most useful and interesting discussions concern the locations, and how they've been used in other hallmarks of the genre. The theatrical trailer rounds out a slim package.
Kino Lorber issues a slim but attractive restoration of John Irvin's nasty and woefully underappreciated crime thriller.