The crime genre is one of the most studied milieus in all of cinema, and in our rapidly changing Hollywood landscape, genuine genre fire-crackers like City of Industry are increasingly harder to find. Receiving an extremely small theatrical release before making its way to DVD and cable in 1997, John Irvin’s gritty, finely textured, and extremely seedy motion picture contains an oversized lead performance from Harvey Keitel as a career criminal who refuses to be taken advantage of by one his young underlings. After a viciously staged heist sequence where things actually go according to plan for Keitel and his crew (a nice spin on the classic idea of the robbery gone awry premise), the film switches gears into revenge territory, with Keitel looking to take down the menacing Stephen Dorff, a dangerous hot-head who tries to double cross Keitel and make off with the score for himself.
Written by Michael Mann protégé Ken Solarz, the film does feel very much inspired by some of the plotting from Mann’s 1995 masterpiece Heat, taking the shape of a stylized, contemporary western where everyone is a shade of grey rather than simple black or white. A whiff of Reservoir Dogs can also be felt, but this distinctive film is definitely its own beast overall, and it serves as a reminder of how few down and dirty crime movies like these actually get made in today’s Hollywood landscape. Irvin, whose credits include The Dogs of War and Hamburger Hill, directed with an iron fist, but in the best sense of the phrase; there’s a no-nonsense quality to City of Industry that allows the bristling narrative to move with driving forward momentum, never pausing for extraneous or unnecessary beats. The rough and tumble outskirts of Los Angeles feel ominous and scary in this film, with Irvin and his astute cinematographer Thomas Burstyn never making any one image too pretty or overly manufactured, instead opting for a dank and murky vibe with flashes of red and blue.
City of Industry feels like a left over from the 1970’s, a crime film interested in character motivation as much as it is in showing off bloody shoot-outs or the expected explosive violence from a tale such as this. In fact, one of the best aspects to the film is how the script does a few things out of the norm, and it can’t be understated just how magnetic and powerful Keitel was in this role, which seemed tailor made to his sensibilities as an actor. The deteriorating industrial side of Los Angeles is also a major character in the film, with an atmosphere that suggests crumbling infrastructure and shady morals, which feels perfectly in tandem with the duplicitous characters. And because everything here was played straight and without a wink of self-conscious posturing or riffing, all of the developments in the story feel all the more tough and earned. Timothy Hutton was shrewdly cast against type, while Famke Janssen and Lucy Liu got some solid scenes as well. Elliot Gould made a colorful cameo appearance. An Orion Pictures release.