Repo Men (2010)
It’s not unheard of for different writers to independently create similar projects. Remember back in 1998 when there were two animated bug movies and two apocalyptic asteroid flicks? Granted, those were big budget studio movies and the final films had little in common other than concept or premise. Repo Men takes place in a world where people open contracts on new organ transplants, but if the buyer is late on the payment then a repo man will come and take back the merchandise. This gory premise might sound familiar for fans of the Goth opera, Repo: the Genetic Opera, which was released a whole 18 months earlier. The makers of Repo Men and Repo have engaged in a he-said/she-said argument over who originated the idea. Repo Men‘s screenwriters claim they came up with the concept in 2003, though the book the film is based was only released in 2009. The Repo team point out that their funky little musical began as a theatrical show that was first performed in 2002. The songwriters behind Repo say that the idea itself goes back to 1999 and began as a 10-minute opera experiment. I suppose we’ll never know who really had the idea first, though I’m inclined to side with the Repo musical fellas because they can back up their claims with evidence. It seems like a whole lot of squabbling over so little, but hey, that’s Hollywood for you.
In the not-too-distant future, one corporation, The Union, seems to hold sway in the world of organ transplants. Remy (Jude Law) is an expert repossessions officer who will slice open anybody 90 days late on his or her payment. His wife wants him to transfer to sales; it’s less messy. Remy’s partner (Forest Whitaker) is an old childhood friend and doesn’t want to lose his butcher buddy. One night, Remy is sidelined by some malfunctioning equipment that fires his heart. He has no choice but to get his own organ transplant. Following the operation, Remy finds that he no longer has the stomach for his old line of work. Remy’s newfound moral compass comes at a cost. He quickly falls behind in his payments and his old bosses plead for Remy to refinance. Reluctantly, they sic the repo men, including Whitaker, on Remy to retrieve company property.
Repo Men takes some nice commentary on predatory lending, pushing the hard sell knowing that the customer can never stay ahead of the mounting fees and payments. The allegory has some sharp moments. However, the movie would have benefited from being pushed further in pretty much every regard. The side characters are horribly shallow. I’m fairly certain that Carice van Houten (electrifying in Black Book), as Remy’s beleaguered wife, could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout boasting a disapproving look. She gets to glare and complain and talk about family issues and then she’s gone, replaced entirely by Beth, a mysterious organ replacement junkie. Beth could have an intriguing back story, and the concept of surgery addiction could dwell upon the human cost of beauty and “upgrading,” but alas, her real purpose is to become an oddly implacable love interest for Remy. She gets to hold his hand while they run. That’s her main contribution (except for one key scene detailed below).
The entire concept of a future world held hostage by a greedy health care corporation could use more contemplation. What is happening with society? No epidemic is ever mentioned, so why do people start contracts on million dollar organs? Do the heavy debts pass on to the next of kin? What is the legality of organ repossession? What level of competition is there out there in the market? What does the government have to say about all this? Does this mighty company supersede the U.S. government? How come Remy can’t even get an employee discount on the merchandise? Has anybody had enough surgeries to become the six million dollar man? There is a wealth of questions born from this premise, but the movie only scratches the intellectual surface and sets its standard change-of-perspective morality storyline into gear. I actually would have found the life of an organ salesman to be more dramatically appealing. What kind of ethical rationalizations take place in the mind of a man who makes his living signing saps into modern indentured servitude? I find that story direction to be more compelling than following the guys who bring back the company merchandise.
But then something weird happens. The movie gallops to a satisfying close, and then it somehow gets even better in its closing moments. I was certain that I was going to write off Repo Men but then 4 things happened to make me sit up straight in my chair (I’ll refrain from any large spoilers):
1) In a film relentlessly aping the visuals of other, superior dystopian films, there’s not much new to look at. You’ve seen this future society thing before, just with more flying cars or jet packs. I came to terms with this; it’s not every movie that reinvents how we interpret the future short of some calamity. Then when Remy breaks into the Company HQ, which is awfully easy by the way, he stumbles into the genetic organ hatchery, if you will. Rows and rows and rows of scientists tinker with organ replacements. The entire environment is a strikingly sterile white, including the scientists wrapped in bulky white biohazard suits. Then Remy and Beth make a run for it, and they are covered head to toe in black. It’s a fabulous visual image, watching the color contrasts. It’s debut director Miguel Sapochnik’s high point.
2) Once Remy and Beth move beyond this laboratory, they get caught in a hallway, and Remy proceeds to take out a mob of employees. The fight sequence is several minutes long and a clear nod to the memorable extended hallway fight in Oldboy (Remy takes out a hammer as his final weapon). Weirdly, Remy’s opponents are suit types, middlemen, office employees, numbers crunchers, but they all leap into battle to take out the corporate intruder. The fight sequence is bloody and stylish enough to please the senses, like when Remy swings a hacksaw and we get Swinging Hacksaw POV as characters duck out of the way lest their jugulars get sliced.
3) Following this, Remmy and Beth must deposit their corporate-licensed organ replacements. This involves cutting each other open, taking a bar code scanner (think a grocery check-out), and digging inside each other to get those subcutaneous scans. What’s amusing is that the scene is blatantly juxtaposed as a sex scene; Remmy and Beth intimately penetrate each other, the editing cuts to close-ups of moaning, and the other tries to soothe the pain with physical assurances, and it’s all set to a slow jam. It’s something of a bizarre sequence, especially upon further review (how effective can scanning for bar codes be inside the gook-filled human body?), but man is it interesting.
4) Just as I had come to terms with the movie settling for a conventional conclusion, the movie pulls the rug out from under you. It offers up a last-minute ending that upends the conventional framework, and, actually, presents the easy coast to a conventional stop in a new light. This is one of those rare instances where a last-minute ending twist actually improved the film. More often than not, a last-second twist is forced and the nail in the coffin of lasting entertainment.
Repo Men is a competently looking, competently entertaining sci-fi thriller that miraculously stumbles into a final act that not only works, it elevates the rest of the movie. My mild boredom vanished and I started wondering why they made me wait so long for the good stuff. Repo Men is a mixed marriage of overall tone. One second it will be darkly humorous, the next it will be satirical, the next it will pine for serious drama, and occasionally it goes for Guy Richie-styled slapstick. A sequence where Remy describes the three occasions he’s been knocked out, with visual interludes, feels like a deleted scene from an entirely different movie. The movie never really settles, touching upon a lot of areas but mostly poorly. The script desperately needed to be fleshed out to make any lasting impact. Now that I’m living in a two-Repo world, I’ll probably stick with the campy musical fun of Repo: the Genetic Opera. At least that movie left you humming.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Posted on March 18, 2010, in 2010 Movies and tagged action, alice braga, book, carice van houten, forrest whitaker, gory, jude law, liev schreiber, miguel sapochnik, sci-fi, thriller. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.