Blank Noir

City of Industry starts out promisingly and then turns into the kind of crime thriller only a pointy-headed postmodernist could love. Since a lot of critics these days have pointy heads, you might just want to brace yourself for a lot of steaming compost in the press about how "existential" and "noir" this film is. And I'll be the first to agree: City of Industry sure is existential. At times it's existential enough to make Jean-Pierre Melville seem like Penny Marshall. But it's also something else: It's not very good.

French noirish crime thrillers, such as Melville's or Andre Techine's, can get away with being moody-blues postmodernist because they do pulp differently over there. The intellectualization that goes into those movies is itself a species of pulp -- a way of juicing the sensibilities while playing tough. When an American crime thriller attempts to Frenchify its roots, it loses its hard-boiled vitality. The result is a kind of antithesis of pulp.

John Irvin, the British director of City of Industry, is no hack. With a film and TV career spanning The Dogs of War, Turtle Diary, Raw Deal, A Month by the Lake, Hamburger Hill, Widow's Peak, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Irvin can lay claim to being the most eclectic director in the business. And it's not an empty eclecticism either, since his movies are often excellent. Taken strictly as a piece of craftsmanship, City of Industry isn't far below Irvin's standard, but it falls down in other ways. When you give a crime thriller a "concept," you risk a conceptual failure. City of Industry is too big for its holster.

The terrific, edgy opening sequences -- a gang is assembled to knock off a Palm Springs jewelry store -- are without a trace of wasted motion. Lee (Timothy Hutton), a small-timer from Los Angeles, is looking for the one big score that will get him out of the racket. (Did I hear somebody say "noir"?) His criminal brother Roy (Harvey Keitel) is lured from his comfortable Midwestern retirement to help out. Jorge (Wade Dominguez), on the verge of re-entering prison after a failed appeal, leaves behind a disgruntled wife, Rachel (Famke Janssen, looking incongruously fashion-modelish), and kids. Skip (Stephen Dorff), the wheel man, is the loose cannon in this tight-lipped crowd: His hair is dyed a punkish blond-black; he likes his music eardrum-popping loud.

The robbery itself is excitingly staged (though it's never explained why the robbers don't wear masks). Irvin knows how to play Wild West-style mayhem against bright white Palm Springs expensiveness. Palm Springs is a highly effective noir locale because you can't get much more blanc than this city in all its golden rot. The dark-light contrast is furiously disorienting.

The aftermath of the robbery is exciting too -- the getaway car is suddenly locked in traffic as a hornets' nest of squad cars screams into formation. Irvin would have done well in Hollywood's studio-system days: There's a real pulse to his art in these early no-nonsense scenes.

But Irvin is working from a script by Ken Solarz (Miami Vice, Crime Story) that rapidly degenerates into half-sensical existential sludge. Things turn out badly for the gang -- but of course -- and the remainder of the film is taken up with Roy's dogged pursuit of Skip through L.A. grunge.

Roy is a blocklike hero, and he's also something of a blockhead. Yet we're supposed to admire his straight-ahead gumption and almost biblical sense of retribution. When he barges in on a shady lawyer who may know how to find Skip, Roy doesn't mess around: Instead of waiting for the lawyer to retrieve a phone number, he just makes off with the guy's laptop. Roy pulverizes a deliberately unhelpful bartender, he breaks bad news to Rachel with all the finesse of a replicant from Blade Runner, and he's subverbal in that fake-enigmatic tough-guy way that saves screenwriters the bother of fleshing out a character. "Why don't you call the police?" Skip's Asian stripper girlfriend asks Roy. "I'm my own police," he replies. It's one of his lengthier complete sentences.

Skip is as jangly as Roy is sluggish. Taking refuge in L.A.'s multicultural gangland landscape, he does business with Chinese tongs and black underlords. We're meant to recognize that he's in his element in an unbalanced world -- though it's difficult to see how someone this nutso could ever get through a day. The contrast between Skip's Young Turk craziness and Roy's plodding righteousness is a hyped-up, fancy-pants version of that old Western/crime movie standby: the veteran gunslinger versus the upstart. Roy and Skip are meant to be emblematic of then and now; we're supposed to mourn the passing of the old ways of doing crime -- Roy's ways. For all its newfangled gloss, City of Industry is soggy with sentimentality. Are we really supposed to believe there once was a shining hour when honor reigned among thieves?

Making Roy and Skip emblematic saps the movie of its grade-B pleasures. A lot of famous American crime movies, such as High Sierra, made the same points as City of Industry without having to earn a Ph.D. The schematic approach extends to the way Irvin shows off L.A. Instead of the usual La-La-Land stuff -- I can't recall seeing a single palm tree -- we get sweatshops, bleak byways, abandoned oil refineries. (At least the refinery is the same one used in Jimmy Cagney's White Heat.) Other directors have used this un-L.A. approach before, notably William Friedkin in To Live and Die in L.A. The trouble is, it's just another myth -- a countermyth. Instead of glitz everywhere we have grunge everywhere; but soiled or sparkling, a fantasyland is still a fantasyland.

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