Harvey Keitel takes center stage as a double-crossed crook goes for blood after a major jewel heist turns sour — and bloody. Timothy Hutton and Stephen Dorff are in on the split for one late- ’90s crime caper that’s not a stylistic hijack of Quentin Tarantino. Directed by John Irvin.
City of Industry
KL Studio Classics
1997 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date October 3, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Stephen Dorff, Timothy Hutton, Famke Janssen, Wade Dominguez, Michael Jai White, Lucy Alexis Liu, Reno Wilson, Dana Barron, Tamara Clatterbuck, Elliott Gould.
Cinematography: Thomas Burstyn
Film Editor: Mark Conte
Special Effects: Joe Lombardi
Original Music: Stephen Endelman
Written by Ken Solarz
Produced by Evzen Kolar, Ken Solarz
Directed by John Irvin
Director John Irvin earned his right to crow early on with TV’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the excellent action film about mercenaries The Dogs of War. Staying working has made it difficult for Irvin to maintain a stellar directing career, yet he still comes forward with well-made, superior pictures. Perhaps cued by Roger Ebert’s review, few critics praised 1997’s City of Industry, which is nevertheless a superior underworld thriller set in a recognizable ’80s Los Angeles. It seemed credible enough to me, in the decade where the War On Drugs became a good excuse to come down hard on the poorer sections of town. I’d seen the spread of gang activity out of East L.A. and South Central, fueled by drug money — with cars and bling, the gangs shut down Westwood as an upscale weekend destination, the place to see new movies. I worked on a Westwood parking lot in college in the early ’70s and saw the way it once was, part Beverly Hills but also part UCLA laid-back, with a Free Press bookstore and bars frequented by the peaceful fringe.
No longer just neighborhood gangs, a new level of organized criminals rose: bank robbers, mainly. In one summer the banks on Larchmont were being hit almost once a week. The crooks in City of Industry seem credible enough to me. Writer-producer Ken Solarz came from TV and producer Evzen Kolar had worked all kinds of production jobs, for Cannon and for the James Bond people. They assemble a crack team of actors for a lean, hard-bitten old-fashioned crime saga.
In 1997 filmmakers were falling all over each other trying to emulate Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Ken Solarz’ screenplay isn’t interested in hipster cinema tricks, and neither is it an ironic neo-noir, riffing on an old romantic form. It’s a straight heist followed by a grindingly relentless vengeance ordeal. The dialogue isn’t fancy but it gets the point across. When Famke Janssen suggests that Harvey Keitel go to the police, his answer is, “I’m my own police.” That might have made a better title than ‘City of Industry.’
Thieves assemble in a Palm Springs trailer park to rob a jewelry store. Smart-guy Lee Egan (Timothy Hutton) has purchased a caper scheme that seems a winner. Russian smugglers launder diamonds at a particular Palm Springs outlet. The gang will bust into the place as soon as the couriers arrive, take everything and run. All of the crooks have police records. Jorge Montana (Wade Dominguez) hacks the downtown’s computerized security network, so alarms go off all up and down the street, not just at the crime scene. Jorge leaves behind a boy and a wife, Rachel (Famke Jannsen) in Elysian Park, convinced he’ll be back in a couple days with enough money to support them while he serves time for a previous conviction. Hothead Skip Kovich (Stephen Dorff) roughs up his girlfriend Gena (Dana Barron), picks up some guns purchased from a black gang and joins the conspirators in his fast car, fashionably late. Lee has also brought his far more experienced older brother Roy Egan (Harvey Keitel) in on the job. After some thought Roy approves of the plan. The heist goes down beautifully, in broad daylight. But everything from that moment forward turns into a nightmare. Roy Egan goes on a one-man quest through several levels of the underworld to find the man that’s betrayed the gang.
I wasn’t worried for a moment about the technical storytelling ‘mistakes’ called out by Roger Ebert, for I found City of Industry to be a nail-biting experience all the way through. By the 1970s caper thrillers always came with a gimmick, either a comic touch or some sci-fi gadget wrinkle. Solarz and Irvin’s movie sticks to the basics of pro criminal expertise. As is the tradition (and probably the reality), we have to admire the nerve and audacity of the thieves during the heist. But what they do when things go wrong and details have to be improvised? At perhaps the halfway mark of City of Industry the show takes a left turn into darkness. No more camaraderie, no more brotherly buddy stuff; from that point forward it’s one man on his own. Roy carves a path through Chinatown and intimidates a mob lawyer in his pursuit. His quarry retaliates by engaging a street gang to back him up. But the black crooks also recognize an opportunity when they see it, which leads to real fireworks.
Starting with a nervous title sequence zooming along faceless freeway lanes, John Irvin keeps things hopping for the entire length of the show. The brutal robbery is a slick action set piece. Harvey Keitel is a seasoned hard case with a soft spot for his brother; when he okays the plan we know it will work. What he does in the second half of the show is also credible, at least in movie terms. Roy Egan undertakes a search much like Lee Marvin’s Walker in the superb Point Blank, bulldozing his way forward, getting pummeled by Chinese-American thugs and invading a high-rise legal office. The frightened attorney offers to give Roy a phone number; Roy instead walks away with the man’s entire laptop.
The settings are unfamiliar and stylized perhaps to an extreme. We see an underground nightclub in an industrial building, and visit one of the strip joints that pop up along freeways like supermarkets. Hideouts near and in an oil refinery seem a little dodgy — I’d think those places would have better security. Roy’s determination and a few tricks keep him ahead of his new enemies, even if he doesn’t come out untouched. Although most of the cast is unfamiliar, Elliott Gould has a bit as an okay wheeler-dealer club owner, and the recognition factor momentarily pulls us out of the picture. One contact that Roy roughs up is a club stripper played by Lucy Liu, who six years later would become the formidable O-Ren Ishii in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and attain TV fame on Elementary.
We develop a nervous liking of the crooks in no time. Timothy Hutton is no longer the kid from Ordinary People, and has a face that has seen ‘a thing or two.’ His Lee Egan is a jaded tough guy with brains, slightly overextended but confident that with the right crew, he’ll come out ahead. Wade Dominguez shows real promise as Jorge, the jailbird trying to make a score to support his family while he’s in prison. Like Roy, he’s genuinely intimidating during the robbery. Racking up just two more film credits, Dominguez died very young, fewer than two years after the release of City of Industry.
Stephen Dorff was hot for a couple of years around this show; he’s the nasty boy of the group, the wild card that proves dependable during the heist but not afterwards. He’s an okay villain and certainly effective as a menace, the kind of guy willing to put forward an arrogant, violent attitude when surrounded by a half-dozen armed South Central gangsters.
I chalk up much of the effectiveness of City of Industry to John Irvin, whose judgment keeps the show from looking like one of the legion of Made for Video crime pix of the late 1990s. Irvin also introduces a careful sentimental theme. Roy meets his brother’s girlfriend Sunny (Tamara Clatterbuck) in a short but effective scene. He eventually also contacts Jorge’s wife Rachel. Roy needs her help but also wants to keep her and her son out of danger. Famke Janssen, most recently seen as the terrific female assassin in GoldenEye, at first seems an unlikely contender to play the harried food stamps spouse of a San Pedro felon, but she’s quite good. The glamour quotient is dialed down to zero, and Famke looks appropriately miserable and untrusting at all times. The show smartly doesn’t overdo her relationship with Roy.
You’d think that a picture as feral as City of Industry would work up a completely nihilistic ending, but the filmmakers take pity and give us a little hope. I still find that quality character-action crime stories of this kind to be excellent entertainment when they’re not loaded down with too much of a social agenda, too much trendy attitude, or too much pointless negativity. The only complaint is that the conclusion doesn’t leave room for a sequel. We like these characters. Lee, Roy, Jorge and Rachel would be welcome back, but for the crazy turns of fate.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of City of Industry is an excellent encoding of a picture that to my eye looked a little fuzzy on laserdisc and DVD. The elevated contrast helps replicate the gritty-but-attractive cinematography.
Director Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson provide a full commentary, which is a good listen – it has a casual feel but brims over with good info and intelligent discussion. Nate tells us right off the bat that the show was at one time was to be a big budget picture for Kevin Costner. Nate also tells us that the shots showing how Lee hotwires a car were cut in the UK so as not to teach young neo-spivs a lesson in crime. Mitchell, the director of King Cohn, also discusses the independent Largo production. His notes on the film are critical but fair. He praises it for its sense of setting — the motels, the coffee houses – things that make the film interesting records of their time. I agree with Mitchell that today’s crime films lack a base in recognizable reality. Too much of what I see tend to be special effect fantasies with generic settings, like comic book movies.
An original trailer is provided as well. Surprisingly considering Kino’s new standards and the fact that the film comes from MGM, there are no subtitles.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
City of Industry Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 19, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson