Chop Shop focuses on a young boy navigating life in a car repair district on the outskirts of NYC. With his sister and a crew of surrogate teachers and mentors, the two kids raised by the streets have their dreams and lives laid bare. Director Ramin Bahrani’s 2007 film is an engrossing portrait of resilience, survival, and community. The Criterion Collection brings Chop Shop to Blu-ray with an impressive A/V package and plenty of special features. Highly Recommended.
“How much you paying?”
In the Iron Triangle neighborhood of NYC Alejandro or “Ale” as he is called hustles day and night selling candy, bootleg DVDs, and working at an auto shop. At just 12 years old the Latino orphan lives above the shop in a plywood room hoping to raise enough money for his older sister to buy a food truck. 16-year-old Isamar looks and acts like any other teenager but according to Ale she is wearing that “fake shit I used to sell on 37th Ave”. She is certain of moving to Florida with their family once there’s enough money. Ale doubts the hopeful dreams and focuses on keeping Isamar safe and committed to working.
A shot of the run-down street lined with auto body shops with busy highways in the distance could be anywhere. Cairo, Botswana, or even San Paolo. It's a side of NYC that has yet to be explored visually or narratively. Ale is always seen carrying auto parts down the road to Rob’s shop. Each shot of him is something different; brakes, bumpers, tires, etc. It's almost as if he is slowly carrying pieces to build a car to escape this life.
In an act of desperation Ale steals a purse from the baseball stadium parking lot and runs. When Isamar sees him trying to move a stolen cell phone she calls his bluff. “I’m working. You should be working, too.” His icy stare says it all, “I’m doing what I need to do. You should be doing what you need to do in that truck.” Alejandro here reveals to Isamar that he knows about her “late-night” side hustle.
Chop Shop is the second film in Bahrani’s American Dream Trilogy. Here the dream is no different than Ahmad’s in Man Push Cart. Like Ahmad, we know little about Alejandro’s life other than what we see each day. Pulling parts, sanding bumpers, and aching for the bonding moments with his sister reveal their dreams aren’t too dissimilar but separated by their age and understanding of the world around them.
The locations and camera work help reveal this unpolished world tucked away behind the highway and around the bend from dilapidated overpasses. The drive of these real-life auto laborers and their culture blossoms in Bahrain’s film. Not as documentary-like as his previous film, Chop Shop retains his intimate camera work that never fails to keep its distance or follow the actor as the scene develops. Loads of handheld camerawork but the establishing shots are layered and filled with depth.
Performances are compelling and magnetic. Alejandro is intense and brimming with emotional power. His razor-sharp body control within scenes is near robotic but signals a burning desire to move with a purpose whether it's hauling scrap junk or walking across the road. His energy is off the charts. The non-professional actors that populate the auto shop row are all turning in believable performances thanks to Bahrani casting the actual workers from the Iron Triangle. Ahmad Razvi is yet again a solid performance here adding some much needed acting chops to the proceedings
After watching both films back to back I enjoyed Chop Shop more so than Man Push Cart. Dropping into the Iron Triangle allowed Bahrani to explore an existing world and place a small narrative inside to explore the neo-realist layers contained within its grimy walls. I loved what he accomplished with the combination of amateur actors and lean dialogue exchanges. Bahrani is uninterested in plot beyond developing the slice of life portrait with Alejandro, which can make watching this film a challenge for some.
What Chop Shop does well is presenting the auto shop row as a well-oiled machine run by a diverse group of NYC immigrants. There are conflicts and arguments between shops, but on the whole, we see a mostly supportive environment for Ale. Shop owner Rob is firm but fair and the guys around Alejandro are teaching him skills and giving him responsibilities leaving him with cash in hand. There aren’t gangs or violence beyond a few fistfights. This view of the world is refreshing and contains boundless emotional depth. When a heartbreaking setback occurs Ahmad treats him like an adult because he is making adult decisions. Hell even when local kid Carlos wants to go ride scooters Ale just looks at him like a frustrated parent who needs to clock in for a shift.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Chop Shop arrives on Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection. Housed in a transparent keepcase, the single BD-50 disc is accompanied by an insert booklet with an essay by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The disc loads to a static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options present within Criterion’s slick slider-style menus.
Chop Shop arrives on Blu-ray with an impressive 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. Image quality is full of deep, rich colors with primaries strongly reinforced. Vibrant textures are clearly presented from the brightly painted shop signs to the rough hewn metals littering the shop floors. Contrast levels appear a bit high with some noise permeating the image though nothing that detracts from the experience.
Skin tones appear even and black levels holding strong in low light and shadow. Fine detail is apparent from the textures on costuming to the scratches on the cars at the auto shop. Ale’s cramped plywood room sings with detail as the transfer picks up the rough wood textures as the young boy crashes after a long day’s work.
Chop Shop rolls down the street with a DTS-HD 5.1 audio track that handles the proceedings confidently. Mixed for this release the surround channels carry atmospherics adequately allowing the front and center to handle the dialogue driven film. LFE is subtle and round even during a rolling thunderstorm that drowns the street.
Criterion has provided some great features for this release of Chop Shop, including an informative commentary track and enlightening interviews.
Bahrani’s ability to quietly examine the immigrant experience, the blue-collar worker, and those seemingly hiding in plain sight is what makes his films more accessible than you’d expect. Those seeing Chop Shop today may have a different perspective on the difficulty of achieving the American Dream as many are now grossly affected by the global pandemic. If the film teaches us anything it's the importance of community and understanding. The Criterion Collection brings Chop Shop to Blu-ray with an impressive A/V package and special features worth checking out. Highly Recommended.