You know you're in neo-noir country when the first images on the screen turn out to be empty freeway ramps bathed in cold moonlight and oil-cracking towers looming in the fog. It's as though Michelangelo Antonioni and Nicholas Ray had both been let loose again in Los Angeles to spread wide the old alienation, the dark blanket of cynicism.
How long will it be until someone gets shot, point-blank, in the chest? How long till the next betrayal?
Not long, actually. From its bleak title (taken from a real suburb, actually) to its final killing, John Irvin's City of Industry is drenched in the gloom, violence and ennui of film noir. But in this self-conscious, postmodern version of the great 1940s genre, suggestion is less valued than literalness: The blood is now more profuse, the women wear less, the dialogue is cruder. Director Irvin (Widow's Peak, The Dogs of War) fulfills all the conventions of the form, then bangs us over the head for good measure.
The raw, tough-guy hero, played by--here's a surprise--Harvey Keitel, is a career criminal named Roy Egan, who's done his stretch in the penitentiary and is otherwise a fastidious professional. Before setting out on the film's diamond heist gone wrong, he carefully presses his suit, then goes to bed early. Everything about Roy--his quick thinking, his tough code of ethics, the pure single-mindedness with which he later takes up the role of avenging angel--tells us that he's a bad guy we can love. He's the old guard, primed and polished.
His opposite number is the robbery crew's ratty blond getaway driver, Skip (Stephen Dorff), who's been recruited by Egan's younger brother, Lee (Timothy Hutton). Reckless, cruel and fatalistic, Skip plays Sid Vicious to Roy's Mozart. Half an hour after the robbers pull off the job, Skip kills Roy's brother and the fourth thief, irresponsible Jorge (Wade Dominguez), and runs off with all the loot. Roy pursues slippery Skip through the underworld of Los Angeles with blood in his eye.
Thus do director Irvin (who's quite a stylist) and writer Ken Solarz (writer-producer of Miami Vice) get their chance to show us Oriental gangsters in the fleshpots and gambling houses of Chinatown, black gangsters from Watts, and every dark, desolate stretch of unknown L.A. "scenery" they can find. As you might imagine, indestructible Roy Egan can rough up sullen bartenders, slimy lawyers and arrogant fences with the best of them, but he meets his match in Rachel (Famke Janssen), the grieving (but savvy) widow of the slain Jorge. When preview audiences snickered at the idea of a Keitel-Janssen romance (she's the sizzling villainess from the latest James Bonder, Goldeneye), those scenes were cut; what we've got left is straight vengeance touched by a little redemption, some inventive killing and a slice of neo-noir that doesn't quite measure up to the best new specimens--movies like John Dahl's The Last Seduction and Stephen Frears's The Grifters.
When someone tells Roy Egan, man with a mission, to call the police, he tells that someone: "I'm my own police." Well, of course he is, just as John Wayne used to be his own police when he was chasing outlaws in black hats, and just as Dirty Harry Callahan was his own police even when he was a member of the police force.
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Will Roy get his man? Will it be nighttime when he does it? Will he get shot a couple of times? What do you think? This may be 1997--a year as postmodern as all get-out--but some things never change.
City of Industry.
Screenplay by Ken Solarz. Directed by John Irvin. With Harvey Keitel, Stephen Dorff, Famke Janssen and Timothy Hutton.