A film review by Craig J. Koban March 24, 2010

REPO MEN j
½ 

2010, R, 105 mins.

 

Remy: Jude Law / Jake: Forest Whitaker / Frank: Liev Schreiber / Beth: Alice Braga / Carol: Carice van Houten / Peter: Chandler Canterbury / Ray: Joe Pingue

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik / Written by Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner, based on Garcia's novel The Repossession Mambo

The new sci-fi action thriller REPO MEN – not at all to be confused with the great Alex Cox 1984 cult film REPO MAN or even the critically maligned 2008 rock musical REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA – is a seemingly clever effort that has a nifty, intriguing, and unique premise that is…oh…only nifty, intriguing and unique for about five minutes, at which time it fails to hold up under modest scrutiny.  

The trailers for REPO MEN set it up nicely and easily garnered my attention, but to early on in the film itself I found myself plagued with questions regarding the simple logic of its premise.  Certainly, many sci-fi films are so heavy of pure escapism that they make you forget their rational loopholes, but in REPO MEN I found that I could not thoroughly invest in its story because I was questioning its foundations at nearly every waking moment.  All of the glossy, CGI visual effects and hyper kinetic action sequences are for naught when the overall story is DOA. 

Just consider the premise, which is based on Eric Garcia’s 2009 novel THE REPOSSESSION MAMBO: In a non-specific period in the future (the film never bothers to explain just how far forward we are) there is a greedy and omnipotent corporation ubiquitously called The Union that provides consumers with highly beneficial products.  They sell…mechanical organs…of all kinds.  Hearts.  Kidneys.  Pancreases.  Lungs.  You name it.  Here’s the problem: President Obama’s proposed health care system overhaul has apparently not taken effect in this future, hence, no one has adequate insurance to cover the purchase of such life saving organs.  The other issue is that these organs cost as a quarter of a million dollars.  Of course, there are people that clearly cannot afford such extravagant prices, but The Union has unscrupulous commission salesmen that claim that, no worries, they will have a credit/financial plan that will suit their budgetary needs.  The interest on such “generous” loans is 20 per cent. 

In this future, the recent economic recession has clearly never occurred its past, which precluded uncaring mortgage lenders giving funds to people that could not afford the loans that ultimately brought the economic world to a standstill.  The people in the future are so dimwitted that they never once consult the fine print as to the interest and repayment penalties of their organ loans, and they sure as heck are not made aware of the ultimate penalty for late payment: If consumers fail to pay on time, The Union sends out specialized Repo Men that track down the late payers, taze them into unconsciousness, and then slice their unconscious bodies open to remove the mechanical devices keeping them alive.  This type of repossession is, for all intents and purposes, fatal.

Ummm…okay.  According to the film, the number of people that fail to make payments are so disastrously high that The Union needs a squadron of Repo Men to hunt these people down.  Such a staggering number of deadbeat customers can’t be good for their bottom end.  Also, I never quite understood why Repo Men would not just shoot these people dead on the spot and let doctors do all of the horrific work thereafter.  I mean, you zap the hapless victims out cold, remove the organs that are keeping them alive, which subsequently leaves them dead anyways…so why knock them unconscious if you plan is to eventually kill them?  Also, which the advancement in technology in this future world, wouldn’t it make better business sense to simply have fail safe devices on every organ that can remotely and electronically shut the organ off if the person harboring it fails to pay?  This would save The Union oodles of money that they would not have to pay the bounty hunting Repo Men.  Lastly, if people knew the logical outcome of not paying their Union bills on time, would anyone ever sign the dotted line? 

Clearly, this film could have – and I emphasize could have ­– been what many great sci-fi films are: socio-political parables that use futuristic and fantastical settings to pontificate on modern day dilemmas.   REPO MEN, if handled appropriately, could have been a subversive dystopian satire about the insufferable health care system woes that permeate the US headlines today as well as commenting on the subprime-lending debacle that recently destabilized the country.  The film could have attained a biting and scathing sense of the capitalist macabre, but its director, Miguel Sapochnik seems far less interested in dealing with compelling thematic material and instead feels more compelled to create a dizzyingly gory and mindlessly one-note chase thriller.  There are times when the grotesquely violent, slice and dice bloodletting here gets so ludicrously in the way that it all but subverts the potential of its premise. 

Worse yet is that we have A-list talent that let themselves trudge through a forgettable and disposable effort like this.  Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker star as Remy and Jake respectively, two Repo Men that work for the Union and love their job with a ravenous passion.  Remy’s wife (Caprice van Houten) would rather see her husband behind a desk in sales (can you blame her?), seeing as it’s “safer” work for a family man, but Jake can’t see his buddy in a suit and tie selling organs all day long.  Neither can Remy’s boss, Frank (Live Schreiber, fluently and delightfully slimy and disreputable, in a sleazy used car salesmen kind of way), who heads up the Union’s sales team and Repo division.  Nonetheless, Remy decides to call it quits, but on his last mission he critically injures himself so badly that, yup, he is outfitted with the latest Union artificial heart with a cost far above his pay grade.  Worse yet is that Remy develops a “change of heart” (ha...get it?) and realizes that being a Repo Man is cruel and vicious work.  Seeing that he does not want to become like the countless victims he once stalked, Remy goes on the run with a fellow organ fugitive (Alice Braga) and they not only try to elude capture (and death), but also try to find a way to shut down the Union for good. 

If REPO MEN’s plot sounds vaguely like LOGAN’S RUN, then you are not alone.  The familiarity of the narrative structure notwithstanding, the makers of REPO MEN do manage to create a fairly glossy and slick looking techno future that looks like a neon and brightly lit metropolis ala BLADE RUNNER.  Innumerable skyscrapers soar up to the heavens, billboards the size of football fields and elevated trains blare up the skyline, all creating a good looking, but inconsistently realized vision of the future.  By inconsistent I mean that the architecture of the city looks a hundred years ahead, but the cars, computers, cell phones, and TVs, for example, look very much of today. 

As much as the film is nice to look at, everything else around its artifice unavoidable falls flat.  One of the big dilemmas of the film is its tone, which veers wickedly all over the place:  REPO MEN suffers from what I like to all cinematic multiple personality disorder: There are times where it not only feels cobbled together from the finer elements of other better genre films, but it also seems to have no clue as to what tone its wants to maintain.  Sometimes it’s ghoulishly funny, other times solemn; sometimes it feels outlandishly silly and inane and other times slyly supplicated and smart.   I think that if the film maintained an unfailing level of, say, a tongue-in-cheek black comedy than it would have been all the more durable.  Unfortunately, REPO MEN is too schizophrenic for its own good.  I simply never knew when to laugh with or at it and whether it knew when it should be taken itself seriously or not. 

Then, of course, there is the film’s stomach churning and blood curdling mayhem, and it's kind of sad to see gifted actors like Law and Whitaker reduced to beefy purveyors of wanton carnage.  This is especially true near the film’s obligatory action packed conclusion where the unusually ripped Law all but lashes, stabs, impales, and disembowels his way through a series of Union stiffs while on his way to the company’s mainframe in hopes of shutting it down.  The violence here is so unrelentingly and preposterously over-the-top that you have to remind yourself that you are not watching a ghastly cartoon.  Then there are other moments of head-shaking disbelief, like a late-breaking scene when Remy and Alice are forced to repossess their own organs to be granted access to the Union’s network.  Now, wouldn’t that kill them, you ask?  No, because they don’t actually take out their organs, but just shove bar code scanners deep into their body cavities to be able to wand the organs’ UPCs into the databanks.  Very stupid...and very icky

There are other issues with the film, like a very last minute twist ending that is not nearly as clever and twisted as it thinks it is, especially if you pay close attention to a dialogue passage in the film when one character discusses a new “service” provided by the Union for people suffering from a specific injury.  I did like the macho posturing and smug charisma of Law and Whitaker here, but they are resoundingly dependable actors that are better than this material.  Schreiber is more than serviceable here, playing a corporate stooge with that oozes lecherous charm from the get go.  Regrettably, the film lets its unpleasantly sadistic and perfunctory action lead the way, which consequently leaves very little room for story and character focus.  And, yes, the futuristic premise of organ repossession, under the right filmmaker, could have dug deeper and spoke towards modern-day concerns about health care and money lending, but that would have been the smart way out.  REPO MEN lets its monotonous thrills repossess one asset of all memorable sci-fi allegories: intelligence. 

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