Vincent (Anthony Molinari), the protagonist of writer/director Jonathan Salemi’s The Last Deal, is at a crossroads. He is a proletarian man in his forties still living in an apartment and wondering if he will ever be able to afford a house of his own – the American dream. He vapes non-stop like someone who has never quite let go of a past (if entirely licit) addiction. He is having to decide whether to move on from his long-term girlfriend Tabitha (Jeffri Lauren) or to settle down and have children with her in a proper, stable home unlike the broken one which he himself has left. And he is working in a business that is in transition as much as he is. For it is 2015, and though still strictly illegal at a federal level, the recreational use of marijuana has recently been legalised in the state of California. Now Vincent’s work – the delivering and dispensing of ‘flower’ across Los Angeles – is growing ever less shady, even if darkness remains at the industry’s margins that Vincent occupies.
Vincent, in short, is in the gradual process of going legit and breaking good. Yet as the newly imposed regulations of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus eat into his profits, and as he struggles to get a licence that would allow him to sell weed from a shop, and as he sees the business of himself and his younger partner Bobby (Mister Fitzgerald) “getting fucking crushed”, he realises he needs a ‘Plan B’. So he decides to break bad one last time, buying a very large shipment of cheap, unregulated marijuana from an Armenian gang, using capital borrowed from loan shark the Boss (Sala Baker) and his crew of enforcers. It is a high-stakes gamble, and when things quickly go wrong, the surprisingly naïve Vincent finds himself spiralling ever downwards into a world of theft, betrayal, abduction, murder, hitmen and revenge, as he tries – and repeatedly fails – to stay one step ahead of his debts and to survive his own get-rich-quick scheme.
“He knew the game,” one character (Linda Burzynski) will say of a loved one (Tim Willis) who has been killed near the end of The Last Deal, “We all do.” Such fatalism pervades a film in which the system – even a changing system – traps everyone as they vie with each other for elusive revenue. Bobby may be, as Vincent says, a ‘good kid’, but he is also stabbing strangers with screwdrivers as part of his side hustle – and even Victor, the film’s nominal hero and the most ‘innocent’ of these characters, is not averse to lending his own muscle to help Bobby with his money collections. Victor may regard himself as being above the thugs and cutthroats whom he occasionally encounters in his work, but when, in his voiceover at the beginning, he justifies punching someone out cold with the words, “On the streets, where there are no rules, it’s important people respect you, and pay their debts on time,” he sounds remarkably like the vicious Boss – who also, after all, only wants his ‘street cred’ honoured and his money returned. Play around in this world, and there is a good chance that you will end up losing.
The Last Deal might seem like just another in the long list of ‘one last job’ crime stories, but what marks it out from the competition is that it is not Vincent who is retiring, but rather a business model that is crumbling beneath him. The film’s coda is clearly marked (by the presence of a face mask) as being set in the age of Covid, by which time all the criminal and semi-criminal activities in which, some five years earlier, Vincent was shown engaging have stopped being criminal altogether, and turned into a legitimate, highly corporatised operation. Now people can enjoy the fruits of Vincent’s efforts, but without the risks and repercussions that he had to face – which exposes every act of violence in the film, every punch and stab and brutal murder, for their utter futility.
Like a gangster film set in the Prohibition era, this chronicle of the Green Rush shows a criminal underworld unnecessarily but inevitably maintained by market forces during a War on Drugs in its last gasp. Vincent can only become a respectable family man when circumstances will allow it – and his emergence runs parallel to a revolution in national law beyond his control, at which point the possibility of a better life falls into place. If this working-class lad does good, it is not so much that he goes legit as that he is made it by a society whose perspective and judgement have altered around him, bringing his labour into the light.
strap: In Jonathan Salemi’s bud-dy noir, a laid-back LA weed dispenser falls foul of his business’ shifting criminality
© Anton Bitel