Hollywood films which unfold in some dystopian near-future run all sorts of risks, not the least of which is something largely beyond their measure of creative control — where they fall in the marketplace, in terms of how receptive the public is to both bleakness of tone and the specifics of their subject matter. A pleasant touch of kismet, then, that Repo Men hits theaters against the clamorous backdrop of the current health care reform debate. A competently pieced together dramatic thriller with flashes of action and streaks of mordant humor, Repo Men is a movie that won’t get the respect it deserves in part because of its genre trappings and easy-sell marketing campaign, but also because it expressly doesn’t waste time trying to court that respect. It’s facile with its colorful background strokes, breezy but effective with its characterizations and generally more thoughtful than it needs to be, and the overall result is a spry, fun film that also seems in some ways tailor-made for the current zeitgeist.
Remy (Jude Law) works as a repossession officer for The Union, a slick corporation which specializes in “artiforgs,” nano-technologically engineered replacement organs (lungs, heart, knee cartilage, you name it) that can be financed just like an automobile purchase (a free-marketer’s dream!), and of course then be contractually seized back in similar fashion if/when the recipient — sometimes powered by vanity, but frequently desperate and bereft of medical alternatives — cannot pay. This line of work is a point of contention between Remy and his wife Carol (Carice van Houten), with whom he shares a young son. Remy is good at what he does, and more or less a creature of leonine, unblinking, heart-hardened efficiency (he thinks nothing of holding a pair of bloody tweezersin his mouth as he works his gloved hand into a body cavity up to hiselbow), but Carol wants him to talk to his boss, Frank (Liev Schreiber), and arrange for a transfer to the more civilized realm of the sales department.
Jake (Forest Whitaker), however, Remy’s best friend since childhood and a barrel-chested, garrulous guy who takes a more naked delight in needling strangers on the street who are approaching their allotted payment cutoff dates, sees their shared work as exciting and fresh — a masculine competition loop from which he wants no exit, for either himself or his friend. Things change in an instant for Remy when, in a work-related accident, he’s rendered unconscious and outfitted with a transplant heart. In short order he’s both single — Carol leaves him when he doesn’t immediately take a desk job — and uncertain how to continue his work. Remy then finds himself approaching overdue status, but instead of looking for money or accepting Jake’s offers of help, he spends his last free-and-clear days playing savior to a junkie singer, Beth (Alice Braga), with multiple transplants — the result of a near-fatal auto accident. Together, the duo lives on the lam for a while, then take up a mission of self-preservation — to break into The Union’s corporate headquarters and erase their transplant accounts, thus clearing what they owe.
Repo Men is directed by Miguel Sapochnik, from a screenplay adapted from Eric Garcia’s novel The Repossession Mambo, and even if one didn’t have knowledge of this fact they would likely pick up on trace elements of its novelistic roots, since the movie evinces a smart, realistic depth of setting without having to resort to overwhelming special effects crammed into every frame. It’s also the rare futuristic movie that peddles drama or action but still isn’t afraid to have a sense of humor about itself. A big part of it is the jocular rapport that Law and Whitaker establish early on, certainly, but there’s a buoyancy to the proceedings, even as it progresses into darker territory.
The script massively drops the ball on one fundamental question — as a Union employee, it defies credulity that Remy would not be covered with an underwritten protective policy, especially while actually on the job. Even though much hinges on this plot pivot, there’s not even any real attempt at writing around it, which could have been achieved in cursory fashion with one scene, or just a small handful of dialogue exchanges. Bridging the gap of this suspension of disbelief is undeniably Repo Men‘s greatest shortcoming.
Otherwise, however, the screenplay and story are characterized by a pleasant unpredictability that is informed by realistic motivations: Remy is a lunch-pail kind of guy jerked rudely awake, which sudden health concerns can certainly do. The movie’s action, too, is a nicely presented mix — the penultimate corporate siege sequence is a nice mash-up of THX 1138, Oldboy and some David Cronenberg wet dream — blending together balletic modernism, queasy absurdism and good, old-fashioned knuckle-dusting. There’s plenty of exaggeration here, but also enough exposed-nerve truth to make Repo Men one part discomfiting to every two parts entertaining. One hopes this isn’t the future of health care in America. Insert nervous laughter here… (Universal, R, 111 minutes)