It wasn’t until I began laughing at Repo Men that I was able to enjoy the movie. Unfortunately, that moment didn’t come until very late into film, after having sat through more than an hour and a half of close-ups of crude surgical procedures, numerous gruesome fight scenes (with much spraying blood), and some terrible and earnest dialogue about friendship and love. It all seemed so sincere, and with two heavyweight actors in the leading roles, Jude Law (Breaking and Entering, Sleuth) and Forrest Whitaker (The Crying Game, The Last King of Scotland), I had no idea whether this movie was trying to be a new Blade Runner or some campy B-movie inspired by Asian action-gore flicks. Whatever the intention, Repo Men got so bad it became enjoyable – it just took about three dozen murders and even more shots of hands reaching into bleeding bodies to breach the point of absurdity.
The premise of the film is that a medical company that manufactures artificial organs repossesses those organs if their owners fall behind on their payments. If you are ninety-days late, guys like Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) come with their suitcases of surgical tools, cut you open, and take back the company’s property. It’s an over-the-top allegory of current discontent with the American health care system, an exaggerated way of turning our attention to the fact that the consumer-ization of medical care is inhuman. Yet this is no Michael Moore fire and brimstone speech, it’s an action flick, and Remy and Jake go on killing sprees, rooting-out “nests” of delinquent transplant patients who hide out in grimy abandoned buildings, living their lives in fear of the repo men. When Jake and Remy show up, they shoot, stab, kick, and cut in highly stylized fight scenes that are fun to watch (for me, at least) until the scalpels hit the skin. If you want to see me pass out, tie me down in front of the Discovery Health Channel and make me aware of the fact that I have actual organs pumping inside my body. I spent a good deal of this film with my head between my legs.
The world of Repo Men is a little Blade Runner, a little Terminator, and a little Mad Max, set in an undetermined period in the future when buildings are taller, signs include English and Chinese writing, public transit runs in the sky, and we still live in suburban subdivisions. There is a humorous scene when the repo men are enjoying a barbecue in Remy’s backyard, and we are supposed to recognize here that institutionalized murder is accepted when we gloss it over with suburban normalcy. Repo Men’s vision of the future contains a bit of the social programming present in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: intrinsic evils can become social norms. But personal conscience rears its ugly head when Remy gets injured during a job, and he himself ends up with an artificial heart in his chest. Marital problems follow, and he can’t stomach doing his job anymore, so, of course, he falls behind on his payments. Jake and Remy are pitted against each other in a predictable buddies-turned-enemies motif.
The chase begins, and, necessarily, Remy needs to find a pretty girl to accompany him on that chase. That’s Beth (Alice Braga), who has nearly all artificial organs. Remy is inexplicably enthralled by her (they’re both beautiful people, which is enough character explication for this movie) and is determined to break into the corporate headquarters and clear their accounts in the company’s computer system so they can live happily ever after without fear of a company drone coming at them with scalpel in their sleep.
What is so hard to shake about Repo Men is that the extreme campiness that makes the film somewhat stomach-able seems unintended. It dresses itself up like the real deal, with real actors, and takes real stabs at profundity (they miss wildly). The narrative is framed with Remy writing a memoir about being a repo man, and the voice over (very Blade Runner) makes it all seem so serious. The gore itself – so trumped up – makes it seem like the film is trying to be more than a run-of-the-mill fight movie. But how many times can you stick a knife through someone’s neck before it all gets ridiculous?
There is a scene late in the film in which Remy and Beth need to scan the barcodes on their organs and have to perform surgery on each other, sticking the scanner deep into one another’s bodies. It is shot like a sex scene, the camera moving slowly over the skin of the bodies. The breathy characters sweat and moan; their wincing expressions could be mistaken for pleasure or pain. It’s a rather creative sequence, but if director Miguel Sapochnik is trying to say something about sex, violence, pain, or love, it is completely lost in the gruesome horror of what’s going on. However, if Sapochnik is winking at us, showing-off how clever he is at leading us to this moment of surgical sex, then we leave the theater with the same sense of satisfaction that follows after having been the victim of a well-pulled prank.