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Mayhem & Murder in ‘Motor City’

A tour through Detroit’s rich history of crime films.

Steven Soderbergh is taking us back to a few familiar places this summer. No Sudden Move, the prolific filmmaker’s fourth movie released in the last three years, debuts on HBO Max on 1 July. The film marks Soderbergh’s return to the heist genre — fertile playground for the director, where he’s produced everything from the slick, successful Ocean’s trilogy (2001–07) to the bumbling, underseen Logan Lucky (2017). Soderbergh’s also returning to Detroit, the setting for Out of Sight (1998), his original foray into the heist genre, for the first time in over 20 years.

Out of Sight was adapted from a novel by Elmore Leonard, the “Dickens of Detroit” himself, who has long been considered the bard of crime fiction in the Motor City. Leonard’s novels have infamously struggled to translate to the big screen, however, and beyond a fantastic run in the mid-1990s, adaptations have mostly been failed star vehicles and straight-to-DVD bottom dwellers.

Following Barry Sonnenfeld’s comical Get Shorty (1995) and Quentin Tarantino’s reverential Jackie Brown (1997), Out of Sight capped Leonard’s big screen takeover in the ‘90s by earning a pair of Academy Award nominations for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ and ‘Best Editing’, becoming Soderbergh’s first studio-released box office success — paving the way for Ocean’s Eleven (2001), a film that setup the rest of his career, and established George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez as bonafide movie stars. It also created a mini ‘Elmore Leonard Cinematic Universe’, bringing back Michael Keaton’s ATF agent Ray Nicolette from Jackie Brown for a brief cameo.

Out of Sight often sits at the top of publication’s Soderbergh rankings, a maddening exercise given his constant output of new films. But Out of Sight hits the perfect sweet spot between Soderbergh’s eccentric tendencies and his popcorn sensibilities, perfectly encapsulating the director’s varied filmography. And the setting plays a major part in what makes the movie work so well. The visual transition from Florida to Detroit, switching from the bright, wide-open south to the dark, cramped midwest, signifies the rising danger level.

Out of Sight © Universal Pictures

Leonard’s other Detroit-set crime novels, especially the vaunted originals dubbed the Motor City Five — 52 Pick Up, Swag, Unknown Man #89, The Switch, and City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit — have a more checkered history of adaptation. 52 Pick Up has actually been adapted twice — once as The Ambassador (1984) by J. Lee Thompson, and once in 1986 by John Frankenheimer (who kept the book’s title), but both moved the action away from Detroit.

Life of Crime (2013), an adaptation of The Switch, did keep the action in Detroit and boasted a solid cast — including Mos Def as Ordell Robbie, 16-years after Samuel L. Jackson played the character in Jackie Brown — but it’s already been mostly forgotten.

Although Rum Punch, the novel Jackie Brown’s based on, takes place in Miami, and the film takes place in Los Angeles, Tarantino was able to venture into the Detroit crime scene with his screenplay for True Romance (1993) — a movie not lacking for Leonard's influence. From one of the all-time collections of colourful supporting players, to Christian Slater’s Clarence Worley’s pop-culture references, Tony Scott’s movie was much more than a lovers-on-the-Lam homage. Like many of Tarantino’s crime tales, it was greatly indebted to Leonard. And unlike Beverly Hills Cop (1984), which sent Eddie Murphy’s detective Axel Foley to Los Angeles after the opening scene, True Romance gives equal treatment to Detroit and Tarantino’s beloved Hollywood.

True Romance © Warner Brothers

Like Out of Sight, the actual crime in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) takes place in an affluent suburb of the city rather than the city proper — a subversive twist on the downtown area’s crime-ridden reputation. Screenwriter Tom Jankiewicz purposely moved the action from his hometown of Sterling Heights, a working-class suburb, to the ritzy Grosse Point.

And although the witty Grosse Pointe Blank dipped its toes into the societal aspects of Detroit crime, Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978) dove in headfirst nearly 20 years earlier. This 1970s crime drama, starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto, examined race, unions, and the desperation of the working class, all amidst the in-the-process-of-collapsing auto industry. It’s among a cadre of ‘70s crime films, sitting a level below The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974) in the American film consciousness that deserve recognition as masterworks.

The decline of the auto industry led to the fall of what was long one of the USA’s most prominent metropolises, a hole Detroit’s only recently begun to climb out of. In a city so reliant on a single industry, a collapse of that nature takes decades to recover from. This economic backdrop informs not just Blue Collar, but 40 year’s worth of Detroit-set crime films.

Perhaps the earliest foray into the Detroit crime sub-genre came when Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty teamed up for Mickey One (1965), a neo-noir released two years before they’d change crime movies forever with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The movie only briefly takes place in the Motor City before fleeing to Chicago, but it’s still worth a mention.

RoboCop © Orion Pictures

One of the most notoriously “Detroit” movies, the ultraviolent satire RoboCop (1987), isn’t strictly speaking a crime film, but its depiction of a dystopian Detroit and its futuristic police force is the first thing that jumps to many viewer’s minds when they think of the Motor City on screen. There was even an attempt to place a statue of the titular character downtown that was rejected by the city.

Considering it was Tupac’s penultimate film performance, Gridlock’d (1997) is an overlooked ‘90s crime comedy from director Vondie Curtis-Hall. Starring opposite Tim Roth, a crime movie fixture of the era, and Thandie Newton, the trio of heroin addicts perform in a spoken word band named Eight Mile Road (shoutout to Eminem). Cops and criminals alike stand in the way of the group making it to rehab during a particularly hellish day.

Narc (2002), an almost unbearably gritty undercover cop drama from director Joe Carnahan, features a never-better Jason Patric and Ray Liotta in maybe his best post-Goodfellas (1990) performance. The film, landing somewhere between James Ellroy and David Ayer, makes inner-city Detroit look like Hell.

The legendary John Singleton brought together the truly wild foursome of Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese, Andre 3000, and Garrett Hedlund for his film Four Brothers (2005) — a modern take on the John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), but transposed to present-day Detroit. The movie doesn’t completely work, but Singleton clearly relished the Detroit setting and included a number of landmark shots in the opening credits and a rocking Motown soundtrack.

Don’t Breathe (2016), a gnarly genre hybrid from Fede Álvarez, starts off as a typical heist movie before transforming into grotesque horror. The movie's trio of bank robber protagonists, normally the villains in a break-in movie like this, are forced into committing a crime so they can escape town for a better life. Things don’t go as planned…

Don’t Breathe © Sony Pictures

One year prior to Don’t Breathe, It Follows (2014) came as a breath of fresh air for the horror genre, with its inventive premise and audacious low-budget filmmaking. Although not a crime movie, It Follows was nevertheless a landmark 2010s genre film that wallowed in the same Detroit setting as its crime movie cousins, with the location adding to the movie’s atmosphere of dread.

The most recent entry into the Detroit crime film canon came with the egregiously overlooked Detroit (2017) from Kathryn Bigelow. It’s a shame this movie flopped commercially and received zero Oscar nominations, because Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal continued their examination into controversial US history with a stomach-churning tour de force based on the Algiers Hotel Incident in downtown Detroit. The ensemble cast were excellent at portraying members of the Motown music scene, the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan National Guard, and more. I’ll be first in line for this movie’s re-evaluation in a few years!

No Sudden Move © Warner Bros.

Taking into account Soderbergh’s pattern of subverting genre expectations, and the history of Detroit crime movies delving into the city’s socio-economic problems, expect No Sudden Move to both fit within and stand apart from the lineage of Motor City crime films that came before it. With a stacked cast and a seemingly low-stakes crime at the centre of its story, one might also find a hint of Leonard here.

After all, the last time Soderbergh made a crime film set in the city, he unlocked the “Dickens of Detroit” on the big screen like never before.

Header image © Wikipedia.

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Logan Butts

I’m an editor and reporter in Nashville who writes about sports, movies, music, and more. Follow me on Twitter @Logan_Butts if you enjoy my writing!