Though framed as a noir crime thriller, “City of Industry” is at heart a Western, or rather an urban Western, a contempo tale of betrayal, revenge, showdown and spiritual redemption, set in the multiracial jungle of L.A. A strong central performance by Harvey Keitel as an aging outlaw of the old school gives John Irvin’s crime drama a deeper existential layer than is the norm with this genre. Competent direction and good supporting cast, headed by Timothy Hutton and Stephen Dorff, should help Orion reach its target audience of noir and indie supporters, though pic’s downbeat, low-key manner will preclude wider appeal.
Moral disintegration, as it effects every facet of postmodern life, seems to be the governing motif of Ken Solarz’s multilayered screenplay. Subtly interweaving a number of subplots concerning both biological and “professional” families, end result is a satisfying American noir that in its dark tone, misanthropy and melancholy owes quite a bit to classic French noir, particularly the work of Jean-Pierre Melville.
Lee Egan (Hutton), a small-time operator, is determined to get out of L.A.’s crime world and begin a new life somewhere else. As his last heist, he masterminds an elaborate jewelry robbery in Palm Springs, for which he asks the help of his older brother, Roy (Keitel). Living an almost anonymous life in an unnamed Midwestern city, Roy boasts the legendary reputation of a smart and savvy thief who somehow knew when and how to quit.
Also recruited for the job is Jorge Montana (Wade Dominguez), a well-meaning but none too bright — or responsible — husband and father who is on probation and now faces the risk of going back to jail. And for his “wheelman,” Lee brings Skip Kovic (Dorff), a hot-tempered and unpredictable youngster for whom the slightest provocation presents cause for erratically violent behavior.
Violating audience expectations — and deviating from most crimers of the past decade — this yarn’s heist does not go awry. Following a rather smooth, if vicious, execution, the band meets at a trailer to divide the loot, when a greedy Skip suddenly pulls a gun and kills Lee and Jorge. Roy escapes, and the rest of the saga is devoted to a suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase that forces Roy to explore L.A.’s culturally diverse and seedy side.
Structured as a journey into the underworld of crime and prostitution, with a parallel exploration of how one man’s personality gets increasingly more obsessive, aggressive and even primitive in its need for revenge, the film recalls Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.” Problem is, the side trips, which send Roy into seamy bars, porn clubs, encounters with nasty Chinese gang lords and shrewd black criminals, are familiar and not that interesting. Compensating for the routine proceedings are some quiet, emotionally resonant moments portraying the growing affection between Roy and Jorge’s attractive widow, Rachel (Famke Janssen), a working-class mom who early on realizes that her hubby is no good and that she will have to be single-handedly responsible for raising her children.
Solarz’s quasi-mythic Western approach to tough, sympathetic outlaws, who are first and foremost men of honor, may not be embraced by today’s viewers, but the story vividly delivers its message about the changing mores of the crime scene. Representing the old guard of criminals, men with an inner moral code and lofty principles, Roy is sharply contrasted with Skip, who embodies the unbridled greed and amoral conduct of the new breed.
Still, what’s missing from “City of Industry” to make it a truly existential noir is a more nuanced detailing of the obviously complex relationship between the two brothers before they reunite for the heist. As it stands, pic is mostly about Roy’s primordial quest for retribution — it’s clear from the beginning that money is an almost insignificant motivational factor.
Keitel was born to play the lead role, an aging outlaw ennobled by being out of step with the new, ruthless ways of crime. Though lacking the overtly religious dimension, in other ways his character here bears resemblance to the one he played in “Bad Lieutenant.” Keitel has become such an accomplished actor that he dominates the screen with sheer physical presence — pic’s most effective scenes are devoid of dialogue or any interaction, simply observing the solitary Roy as he goes about his business. Rest of the ensemble is also vigorous, with cast-against-type Hutton, easily irritable Dorff and appealing Janssen registering strongly.
Helmer Irvin’s work is more impressive in the depiction of the group dynamics than in the action sequences, and he also makes excellent use of space, whether in Palm Springs’ posh resorts or L.A.’s sordid Chinatown. Under his guidance, lenser Thomas Burstyn gives the film a cold, dry look that accentuates the story’s gritty, impersonal texture.