Life Does Not Agree
Most of the time in movies, people enter the criminal underworld because they’re evil. John Doe in Seven is a gimlet-eyed psychopath who kills people to satisfy a twisted moral code. While Neil McCauley in Heat isn’t a gibbering madman, he’s still evil, just more low-key about it. As much as he goes on about professionalism, he’ll still put innocents at risk in a gunfight. Hell, there are no shades of gray to the Russian gangsters who foolishly antagonize one John Wick. They’re straight-up Bad Guys, and we’re into it when Super Storm Keanu comes for them.
Most of the time in life, people enter the criminal underworld because they’re desperate. Out of options. The scary caravan of undocumented people coming for the American southern border? The vast majority of those folks are coming from a place where there are literally no jobs, or they’re preyed upon by gangs.* Does the kid slinging meth secretly want to become a drug kingpin? Perhaps, but odds are most of them are stuck in a profoundly broken system that removes opportunities and stigmatizes them for events that are out of their control.
Most criminals in movies are evil because most movies are designed to be entertainment. That’s fine. I have no problem with Willem Dafoe hurling pumpkin bombs at people. What I really like is when the Venn diagram aligns, when solid genre entertainment on one side and slice-of-life drama on the other meet in the middle. What I really like is interesting crime films like The Scrapper.
An honest living isn’t much of a living. At least, not in Jake’s (Bari Kang) case. Now, he’s in the business of scrapping. He’ll collect junk from abandoned buildings and old cars, then sell it for scrap metal. His hours are long. Difficult. It’s a job that’s not going to make him rich, but his pregnant wife Kitt (Ava Paloma) is proud of him, and his mentally challenged brother JB (Gugun Deep Singh) loves him and looks up to him.
Jake’s life is exceedingly modest, and between his meager income and the two jobs that Kitt works, they struggle to stay afloat financially. At least it’s an honest life. Not like the old days, when he was a safecracker. He was good, but not so good he never got caught. A long stretch in prison showed him the value of an honest life. Inside his small apartment is a picture of a rustic farmhouse. It’s a kind of talisman, an image to focus on, the promise of a life that’s not only honest but also prosperous.
But there are complications. There always are. Jake’s sister Linda (Allison Thomas Lee) runs the scrapyard Jake sells to. She’s also in deep with the cartels as a money launderer, and she’s been skimming a little off the top. Who would notice? It turns out, somebody noticed. That would be Frankie (Andhy Mendez), the cartel’s representative. He informs Linda that they are aware of her misdeeds, and she’ll need to pay back the cartel $100,000 in one week. Corrupt cop Raj (Samrat Chakrabarti) is backing up Frankie, and he seems to itch for a chance to cause a little chaos.
Linda panics. She calls Jake. She doesn’t mean to draw him back into this world, but what else can she do? It seems he has no choice, no good ones, anyway. The plan is to find a place to rob that has $100,000 on hand, pay the cartel, then walk away clean. But there’s no way for anyone to walk away clean.
I’ve come to love the independent films that are a result of a singular vision. Bari Kang directed, wrote, and stars in The Scrapper. He’s made an efficient crime movie that does an awful lot right, and he’s made it his way. With a runtime of an hour and 27 minutes, you’d expect the film to be a breakneck action film filled with double-crosses and action. Kang goes a different direction and takes a good amount of time to introduce us to Jake’s life. We see what he does and what he cares about, and that makes his initial decision and the resulting consequences hit far harder. Hitting just as hard are the moments of violence. Kang shoots gunfights, fistfights, and, what the hell, an axe attack or two with a matter-of-fact directness.
I’ll admit that as an inciting incident, The Scrapper hits the time-honored One Last Job Then I’m Out trope hard. Weak screenwriters rely on tropes to do the heavy lifting, while smart screenwriters use tropes as a jumping-off point. Kang is a smart screenwriter, and there were two things he did in his script that impressed me. The first is that Jake’s decision and the resulting heist isn’t the climax of the story. It’s the initial domino that falls in a line of increasingly bad situations, all taking place due to responses and counter-responses. There are no plot contrivances, just people at odds with each other. The second aspect is Kang taking viewers on a tour of the alliance between the cartel and the Punjabi underworld. We understand the cogs in this machine and how they operate. More importantly, we understand how the machine affects the people who keep it running. The subplot concerning Veer (Ankur Bhatia) illustrates that perfectly, and it’s heartbreaking.
For the most part, the performances are smart and natural. A different kind of film would have portrayed Jake as a master thief, ex-Special Forces or some dumb nonsense like that. Instead, he’s a regular guy trying his best. Kang keeps his performance subtle and genuine, and he makes Jake into a believable ex-criminal and a believable ordinary guy. I also want to take a moment to mention Allison Thomas Lee as Jake’s larcenous sister Linda. The plot of the film happens because she can’t help skimming. Lee goes in a naturalistic performance as well, and Linda isn’t a conniving snake or someone acting out due to trauma. She’s just weak. She saw a chance, took it and it blew up in her face. Lee has a weary resignation in the latter half of her performance, a fatalism that I don’t see too often.
I wished that the villains of the piece had been fleshed out as well and given equally layered characterization. Cartel enforcer Frankie is yet another “guy in a flashy suit making threats,” and I wish Andhy Mendez had been given a meatier role to bite into. The same goes for Samrat Chakrabarti’s Raj, who gets little more to do than wave a gun around and snarl. As the film is about a reasonable guy stuck in a nightmarish system, couldn’t one or both of the antagonists have acted as a shadowy opposite? Going in that direction would have been thematically appropriate and more dramatically interesting.
The Scrapper is a smart, solid, interesting crime film that promises more good work from Bari Kang. He’s made a flawed film, as most films are, but he’s made a film with a point of view and something to say. That counts for a hell of a lot.
*Fun experiment — the next time your Fox-loving relative rants about “illegals,” ask them what they would do in their place.