by Brett Parker
In the midst of American health care reform comes Repo Men, a harrowing sci-fi fable that suggests horrid and disturbing ways insurance companies can dominate and tamper with our medical care in the future. The good news is that technology will be so advanced that any body organ can be artificially replicated to replace a faltering one. The bad news is that these organs are so astronomically expensive that the insurance company holds the right to gut you and repossess their property if you fall behind on payments. It's a wickedly clever premise for a sci-fi parable, one that's a bloody nightmare to behold. The great failure of this film is that it spends way too much time depicting the bloody aspects of the story instead of contemplating the nightmarish angles.
The film opens by introducing us to the inner-workings of The Union, the elaborate health care company that provides replacement organs for American citizens of the future. Need a new heart, kidney, or liver to stay alive? The Union can provide a technologically advanced replacement in no time. The only problem is that a typical organ is usually in the minimum pricing range of six figures. The Union assures its customers that efficient payment plans can be set up to suit any citizen's financial situation, but its an unspoken fact that most customers can't keep up with such gargantuan monthly installments. If a customer falls about three months behind payments, The Union dispatches their highly-trained repo men to reclaim their hardware. These agents track down their quarry, render them unconscious with a stun gun, and slice open their skin to reclaim The Union's blood-soaked property. They more or less leave their former customers to die. It's a gruesome business, but one that appears to be booming.
The film centers on a repo man named Remy (Jude Law) who is mainly considered the top man on the job. He comes from a military background that helps give him the poise, discipline, and detachment to be so good at his assignments (“A job's a job,” he keeps reminding himself). Joining him on his jobs is his lifelong friend and partner in repossession, Jake (Forrest Whitaker), a tough cannon who loves his job just a little too much. Remy's job has become something of a strict routine until the fateful day when he has an accident with a defibrillator on the job. The accident causes him to have his heart replaced by The Union while he's unconscious, bounding Remy to the company's overwhelming payment system.
In the back of my mind, I found Repo Men somewhat similar to Minority Report, Steven Spielberg's wonderful sci-fi thriller about predicting murders before they happen. That film also depicted an advanced futuristic technology that betrays its key player, forcing him to try and defeat his own system. While Minority Report touched on anxieties over post-9/11 security, Repo Men stirs up nightmares over current health care issues. Minority Report is a shining example of all the qualities Repo Men appears to lack: command in tune, fluidity, strongly-realized themes, masterful action sequences, alluring suspense, thoughtful meditations. Minority Report was a tight masterwork that weaved all its ideas and themes together in a focused flow. Repo Men appears to wander shapelessly between its excessive action scenes and casual ideas.
The best thing the film has going for it is the performances. While this cast easily could've been made up of B-Movie pop faces, we're actually given seasoned pros who've treated us to powerhouse drama in the past. Jude Law is an actor who can weave effortlessly between charm and anguish and its these qualities that sell us on Remy. He also makes for a durable action figure. I loved the scene where he takes on a office full of airport security guards without getting a scratch on him. Forest Whitaker brings his unsettling tics and eccentric bravado to Jake and brings him more depth than we'd expect from such a character. These are two actors who can never be accused of sleepwalking through roles. Also adding devilish fun to the cast is Liev Schreiber as Frank, the apparent head of The Union. He's a wily and quick-witted pencil pusher who would easily dismiss his shady dealings as “business-as-usual.” He humorously doesn't take the film's plot as a matter of life or death, but plays it more as if it were simply an annoying nuisance to a businessman.
If a character is about to die in a movie and is shot dead with a gun, that's effective violence. If a character is about to die and he gets his head cut off with a chainsaw when a gun could've accomplished the same point, that's gratuitous violence. Repo Men is one of the most gratuitously violent movies I've seen in a long time. Of course the repossession scenes necessarily calls for blood and body parts; fight scenes later in the film consist of stabbings, decapitations, slit throats, and blood splattering for no apparent reason other than fodder for action junkies. It's obvious that director Miguel Sapochnik wants to borrow The Matrix's ideal for fusing big ideas with big action, but the action here is so bloody excessive that it looks creepily out of place with the rest of the film. Perhaps Sapochnik is trying to demonstrate a demented karma by showing how Repo Men who live by the sword must also die excessively by it, but the action scenes are too overwrought to focus on such an idea. There's a scene towards the end where Remy uses two knives and a hacksaw to slice and dice security guards and repo men blocking his path in a hallway. This scene is so excessively gory and over-stylized that it becomes hopelessly distracting. A warning to the faint-of-heart: if you get queasy over blood, guts, and human dissections, stay far, far, away from this movie!
Repo Men is a cautionary tale laced with big ideas and a compelling enough premise, but it all doesn't hold together in the end. There are likeable stand-alone moments (I love how Remy infiltrates his old job once he's a wanted man...and the way Frank, Jake, and even Remy laugh about it) but too many aspects of this movie don't deliver. The production design by David Sandefur (Journey to the Center of the Earth) feels half-hearted and doesn't deliver a futuristic landscape that holds up when compared to the great ones we've seen in the past. The soundtrack songs are meant to evoke a disjointed irony but are too distracting and doesn't serve the material in an effective way. Plus the film forces a ludicrous twist ending on us that comes straight out of left field and doesn't fit at all. I appreciate how this film makes us contemplate the horrors our society could face if health care reform were to never intervene, its just too bad that it doesn't appear in an entertaining enough package.
BY THE WAY: The film is based on a novel by Eric Garcia called The Repossession Mambo, a title that is literally referenced in this movie. It's a wonderful title and it sounds way better than Repo Men. Besides, it would've avoided confusion with Alex Cox's 1984 cult classic, Repo Man.