Director – Miguel Sapochnik, Screenplay – Eric Garcia & Garrett Lerner, Based on the Novel The Repossession Mambo by Eric Garcia, Producer – Scott Stuber, Photography – Enrique Chediak, Music – Marco Beltrami, Visual Effects Supervisor – Aaron Weintraub, Visual Effects – Mr. X, Inc., Special Effects Supervisor – Warren Appleby, Makeup Effects – Andrew Clement, Production Design – David Sandefur. Production Company – Universal/Relativity Media/Stuber Productions/Dentsu Inc.
Jude Law (Remy), Forest Whitaker (Jake Frievald), Alice Braga (Beth), Liev Schreiber (Frank Muserey), Carice van Houten (Carol), Chandler Canterbury (Peter), Joe Pingue (Ray), RZA (Jimmy T-Bone), Liza Lapira (Alva), Tiffany Espensen (Little Alva)
Sometime in the future. Remy and his childhood best friend Jake are two of the top repo men for the corporation known as The Union. The Union provides customers with artificial body parts and it is Remy and Jake’s job to repossess the parts when the customers fall behind in their payments. This involves ripping the creditor open and tearing the artificial body part out, something that usually kills the client. However, during one retrieval, Remy’s defibrillator shorts out, electrocuting him. He comes around, horrified to find that he has been given an artificial heart. Now on the other side of the coin, he finds he lost has passion for the repo business. Unable to keep up the payments, he falls behind in a short space of time. As the payments become overdue, he takes refuge in the wastelands. There he meets Beth, a singer who has had almost her entire body replaced with implants that are long overdue. Joined by Beth, Remy becomes an outlaw, hunted by his former colleagues. The only solution is for him to break back into The Union offices and erase he and Beth from the system.
Repo Men caused some confusion before it appeared with some thinking it was a sequel to Alex Cox’s cult hit Repo Man (1984), a surreal punk movie about car repossession agents. In fact, Repo Men was originally known as The Repossession Mambo – the title of the 2009 novel by co-writer Eric Garcia that the film is based on – and then inexplicably changed its title two months out from release. Poor Alex Cox, no doubt irked at the stealing of his title, then found himself facing a barrage of cease and desist lawsuits from Universal because he had just made his own sequel Repo Chick (2009), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival five months before Repo Men gained its new title.
None of this boded well for the film. It only left a bad smell in the air – the panicked changing from a funky sounding original title to something that sounds dull and generic; the stealing of someone else’s title; and then the big bullying studio threatening the small independent creator with lawsuits for using the very title he came up with in the first place. The change of title also unfortunately brings Repo Men into similar territory to Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo: The Genetic Opera (2008), which featured almost identical plot aspects about futuristic repo men (who were even named such) hunting down creditors who were defaulting on their organ transplants.
I wanted to like Repo Men, even though the premise did not sound a promising one. (Furthermore, the film spent two years in limbo during which the original version was hacked about by the studio). Unfortunately, the film does little to raise one’s expectations. The main problem is that debuting director Miguel Sapochnik has an uncertainty of tone. He never seems sure what type of film he is making – a dystopian science-fiction film, a black comedy or an action film/thriller. Repo Men seems to want to be all of these things, yet never satisfies at any of them. The basic concept has been intended as a satirical escalation of the US medical insurance nightmare. (This is not a film that is going to have as much resonance in countries that have socialised medicine like the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). The result emerges perhaps as a conceptual mix of Sicko (2007) by way of Logan’s Run (1976).
The problem with a premise like this is the only way it can work surely is as black comedy – one cannot help but be reminded of the Live Organ Transplants sketch in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). Unfortunately, Miguel Sapochnik only hits the black comedic vein tepidly and sporadically. Mostly, the film plays the idea out seriously. If you want to play an outrageous idea like this seriously, then a science-fictional scenario needs to do a good deal of work to make the set-up convincing. Needless to say, Repo Men does not.
Mostly it borrows elements from other science-fiction scenarios. The idea of the enforcement officer suddenly becoming a fugitive hunted by the very people that he used to work for is a staple that has been used in numerous Dystopian films such as Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Equilibrium (2002) and the closest to what we have here, Logan’s Run. There is also a downbeat twist ending that is a big cliche that has been borrowed from films like eXistenZ (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and most closely to the treatment here, Open Your Eyes (1997), which was remade as Vanilla Sky (2001).
The visual effects team have spent some effort conjuring up displays of densely textured cityscapes. Most of this is imagery borrowed from Blade Runner (1982), however the film fails to do anything down at the street level to create the sense of a living, breathing culture. The idea of a world where people are licensed to remove other’s artificial organs is the sum of the film; there is no effort to build out the background in any way and show how people live in such a society. There is the odd moment where the film stumbles towards some of this – the scene trying to smuggle through customs using the cloaking devices; the brief moments where we see Alice Braga’s mechanical body in action as she shares her amplified hearing with Jude Law to detect a Repo Man sneaking up.
There is an oddly touching climactic scene that involves Jude Law and Alice Braga having to cut one another open so as to scan their body parts into the system, something that has the two of them nearly eviscerating each other on a table. (On the other hand, the scene left me wondering how people covered in grime can reach inside each others’ open chest cavities using their bare hands and no rubber gloves and not cause major infections, although I suppose the film’s ending can explain this away as taking place inside a virtual fantasy hence no need for realism).
That leaves Repo Men to work as either an action film or a thriller. However, it also feels oddly unsatisfying as either of these too. As a thriller, it seems singularly lacking in the burning tension and wild unpredictable twists of plot that the genre specialises in (unless you want to count the downer of a twist ending). It works slightly better as an action film, although there are not the seat-edge car chases and daring stunts that you expect of the genre. There are at most a couple of mildly low-key fight sequences and one revved up one with Jude Law bloodily fighting his way through a group of men armed with various implements to get to the pink door.
In the acting department, everyone plays well but is rarely standout. Jude Law and Liev Schreiber are serviceable, while Brazilian actress Alice Braga (niece of Sonia) adds an undeniably bright sparkle as Beth. All of the roles feel like they cry out for more depth in the writing and fail to push the respective names cast to inflate their characters. This is especially the case with Forest Whitaker who feels miscast. Whitaker’s greatest effect has always been quietly understated strength or introverted sensitivity but the character he is given here seems almost the opposite to that. The way the character is written makes it sound like the ideal casting would be someone like Tom Sizemore or Randy Quaid but with Forest Whitaker the part does not seem an easy fit. It is to Forest Whitaker’s credit that he strives to give the role life.