The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes maintains “There is nothing new under the sun.” But to watch Repo Men is to think, “There is nothing new under the video billboards of a futuristic dystopian skyline.”
Cinematic science-fiction devotees will be counting up the cultural touchstones in Miguel Sapochnik’s film of Eric Garcia’s novel The Repossession Mambo (screenplay by Garcia and Garrett Lerner). Parts of Blade Runner, Logan’s Run, Fahrenheit 451 and Brazil can be seen in the machinery of Repo Men (not to mention the 2008 cult film Repo! The Genetic Opera). In an unspecified near future, a sinister corporation called The Union offers organs for sale. The only hitch? If you fall ninety days behind in paying the exorbitant bills, a repo man will be after you with a stun gun, a knife, and a terrible bedside manner.
Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are two of The Union’s best repo men, and best-friendly adversaries since boyhood. Remy’s wife (Carice van Houten) insists that her husband move into sales, but Remy and Jake are adrenaline junkies who don’t want to put an end to their field partnership. Then, what’s meant to be Remy’s last job goes horribly wrong, necessitating an organ transplant. Now that heart’s in the other chest, so to speak, will Remy have the heart to go back to work? More importantly, will he be able to make his payments?
As a morality play, Repo Men is more than a little ridiculous (“Gee, was it wrong for me to kill all those people? Now that I could be killed, I guess so!”) and hardly relatable. But despite being shot in the fall of 2007, the movie is now perfectly positioned to take advantage of the health care debate. Unfortunately, the satire doesn’t get any more complex than “What if the mortgage crisis were over livers instead of houses?” It’s an amusing idea as far as it goes, and it certainly gives the plot a freaky urgency. But when Union boss-man Frank says, “We want ‘em buying, not thinking,” he could just as well be a Hollywood executive.
A trite extramarital romance between Remy and a wasted singer named Beth (Alice Braga) is dead on arrival; ten organ transplants have made her a credit default waiting to happen, but otherwise her character is a cipher. Only David Cronenberg would find the pair’s body invasive S&M love scenes hot, and their come-ons are laugh-out-loud awful (Her: “Ask me about my lips.” Him: “What brand are your lips?” Her: “They’re all me.” Cue aggressive snogging). Though Braga is a blank, Law anchors the picture nicely, and Whitaker and Schreiber lend humorously zesty support.
Once the frisson of the gory premise becomes familiar, and the nominal psychological credulity of the first act passes, there’s little to sustain interest beyond the usual run, gun, and slash tactics. As the Beltway craws into action on nationwide reform, Jude’s new movie dramatizes the worst-case scenario of health care intertwined with the profit motive. If only the movie hadn’t sat on the shelf, maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long for a Law to become a bill. (I’m here all week—tip your waiters…)
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]