REVIEW SUMMARY: Good ideas and a couple of interesting set pieces do not save moronic, by-the-number science fiction action movie.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A man who repossesses artificial organs must flee from the organization that employs him when he cannot pay for his own artificial heart.
PROS: Strong ideas, with one or two interesting action sequences and the occasional bit of cleverness.
CONS: Unconvincing worldbuilding, implausible characters and a surprising lack of guts. (No pun intended.)
Upon seeing Repo Men, I drove to a nearby Barnes and Noble and purchased a copy of The Repossession Mambo, the novel by Eric Garcia on which this futuristic thriller from director Miguel Sapochnik is based. My decision to buy the novel had nothing to do with the movie’s quality. Or, rather, it did, and that’s part of the problem. The movie presented ideas that were likely handled in the novel with exactly the finesse, skill and gallows wit that its adaptation lacked.
The core idea is interesting, even timely, and sounds rife with the potential for satire in the manner of Frederick Pohl’s and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, with a healthy mixture of Thomas Harris and John Connolly. Unfortunately, action clichés mire the execution.
Set in a future where health care reform has all but failed, the movie follows Union employee Remy (played by Jude Law), an average family man who pays for his suburban home by tracking down those individuals who have purchased artificial organs (artiforgs) on credit but who cannot meet their payment obligations. Once he finds them, he must repossess their artiforgs, which means…well, if you’ve ever seen the “Live Organ Transplants” sketch from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, you know what that means: opening up the individual and returning the artiforg to the Union. But a repo goes wrong, putting Remy into a coma; when he wakes, he learns from his boss (Liev Schreiber, playing it with smarmy gusto) that he’s been given an artificial heart to save his life. Upon release from the hospital, his wife Carol (Carice van Houten) throws him out, refusing him even visitation with his son Peter. When Remy falls behind on his payments, he runs away with a woman (Beth, played by Alice Braga) with more artiforgs, and therefore far more to lose, than Remy. (When she learns, in one of the movie’s most heavy-handed bits of symbolism, that Remy has an artificial heart, she tells him that that is the only part of her that isn’t artificial.) A repo man tracks them down but is killed by Remy, leaving Remy’s former partner and childhood friend Jake (thanklessly played by Forest Whitaker), to track him and Beth down before he can find a way to remove their payments from the Union’s databases.
On occasion Repo Men manages suspense and a dollop of cleverness. At one point, when a repo man hunts Remy and Beth in an abandoned building, Remy saves them using a piece of old-fashioned technology. Remy, in his first screen repo, reads a statement asking if a tasered individual would like ambulance assistance, then puts on his biohazard gear and begins his work. (As an added touch, he listens to mambo music over a pair of earbuds while he makes his cuts.) When Beth visits an underground surgeon to fix her damaged artiforgs, Remy expresses shock at her surgeon. These moments bring Repo Men close to something resembling life. Unfortunately, most of the movie is about as artificial as the organs being repossessed.
Who are these repo men? Logically, one would think they are serial killers who have found a publicly acceptable niche in society. However, this is inconsistent with the society the movie presents, which is about as ordinary and innocuous as one would find looking outside of one’s window. No one appears bothered by even the possible existence of these repo men, which seems out of place for this movie. One would think that a world where serial killers have gained employment doing what they do best would be populated by individuals as ruthless and as mercenary as the repo men and their bosses. Instead, when Carol learns and actually sees Jake perform a repossession outside of her house, she expresses shock and disgust and suddenly leaves her house. And this action raises more questions. Are the repo men sanctioned by the police? They must be, because, except for one throwaway line, they’re never mentioned, and in not one shot does the viewer ever see a police car or a patrolman. And if the repo men are sanctioned by the police, or even if they are policemen themselves, wouldn’t they instill more fear in people?
Though screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner could have solved some of these problems with a few simple lines of dialogue, they also would have better served their screenplay by adding more menace and a much bleaker worldview. Indeed, at its heart, the story is a noir tale with the potential to be worthy of Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis, and can be seen as a companion to Charlie Huston’s excellent novel The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. However, director Miguel Sapochnik chooses instead to film it as a typical action picture, with occasional stylish flourishes (including a direct ripoff of Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy) but which ultimately seem pointless. And though his casting agent has assembled a solid team of actors, everyone involved (with the exception of Schreiber) plays their roles even more woodenly than one sees in most action movies, thus dampening viewer involvement with the material.
When I picked up the novel from Barnes and Noble (and why would anybody change novel’s excellent title to such a bland one?) I read the first sentence and immediately bought it. The line? “The first time I ever held a pancreas in my hands, I got an erection.” Which is precisely the mixture of noir, cognitive dissonance, and macbre perversion that one would hope for when one considers The Repossession Mambo‘s core ideas. Elements, alas, completely absent from Repo Men.