Full of coy deceptions and middle-finger outbursts to film aficionados, Miguel Sapochnik’s Repo Men starts out as a comically grim Grand Guignol play on slippery debt collectors, salesmen and a corporate monopoly’s hand-tying rules that make healthcare consumerism feel more like Russian Roulette, but ends up merely grim and slippery. That the characters are such child-like goons, and that the story resorts to so many winking moments of audacious creative bankruptcy, would make it hard to say a single kind word about if it also weren’t completely engaging. Repo Men is a maddening film, but you will stay and watch it to the very end.
Remy (Jude Law) is a repossessor of organ replacements for The Union, a massive conglomerate that appears to have overcome small details like laws against threat, destruction and murder. Remy is quite effective at his job: break into someone’s home or office, knock them out, cut into them and dig out their automated liver or spleen or heart, whatever organ they have late payments on. We are told there is a 90-day grace period, but on day 91, you better watch your back. Some customers have more than one organ on credit; others use scanning devices to block repo detection.
Remy’s frequent partner and best friend is Jake (Forest Whitaker). Jake isn’t the kind of best friend you go looking for; their years together seem to have centered exclusively around violence and destruction. But when in a jam, Jake has Remy’s back, though it’s as if the two never outgrew the muscle-headed competition and subsequent bickering of high school. And when Remy starts to lean toward a bland (read: less violent) sales position, Jake thinks he knows what’s best for our uncertain hero.
After a rather timely and unfortunate on-the-job accident, Remy ends up in a hospital bed with a shiny new replacement part pumping blood through his body. After a few words from Jake and some shill from their boss Frank (Liev Schreiber), Remy commits to the new lease on life. This literal change-of-heart comes with a rather sudden figurative one: Remy finds he can no longer remove parts from customers, knowing he has one inside him. Worse, he quickly becomes late on his payments, and it is a matter of time before Frank gives one of the repo men Remy’s “pink slip”.
Had Repo Men been a grisly, enjoyable piece of standard action fare with equal doses of violence, gore and humor, one could only complain that perhaps it wasn’t particularly memorable enough. Ironically, the film is so utterly derivative that Sapochnik and company owe other – better – filmmakers a huge debt. An opening reference to Schrödinger’s cat (here replaced with a rabbit) deserves points for cleverness. And unspecified future cityscapes are clearly required to be tall, brightly lit and covered in video screens streaming persistent advertisements (Blade Runner, anyone?). The very premise of the film goes back over a quarter of a century to a segment from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which is played on a television screen in one scene. To top it off, there are blatant rip-offs of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy that defy cries of homage. The Oldboy reference in particular (of that film’s visceral and thrilling hammer-in-the-hallway sequence) is such a direct copy that one wonders how they got away with it. When lyrics of songs are copied, legal action usually follows; how is this sort of visual reproduction any different?
But more perplexing and criminal is Repo Men‘s logic. How does an all-too-powerful corporation A) overcharge for a product consumers already cannot afford, B) effectively kill off its overdue customers, thus negating potential revenues that could be gathered through other legal remedies, or C) stay in business when A and B seem to be common knowledge? You know it’s a fiction when smooth-talking car salesmen and thugs with scalpels override commonly-held business practices. That The Union seems to work outside of government or lawful control smacks of Screenplay 101 shenanigans.
Still, after all the philosophical and creative argument, Repo Men still works as a bloody, violent, fast-moving piece of action. But its obviousness and lack of any original motivation may leave you with a bitter taste after all is done. As much as characters seem to strain and convulse with emotion, the film remains cinematically heartless.