Not so very long ago – the year was 2008, in fact – audiences had bestowed upon them a gift of a film called Repo! The Genetic Opera. A violent, bombastic musical from Saw auteur Darren Lynn Bousman, the movie told the story of a repo man assigned to collect organs lent out by a giant corporation in a dystopian future.
As if that film, with its feverish explosion of cacophonic sounds and heavy-handed visuals, hadn’t exploited the premise enough, in ride director Miguel Sapochnik and screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner to the rescue. Repo Men is based on a novel by Garcia and not its musical counterpart, but it’s essentially the streamlined big budget action version.
The major difference: the new movie’s sensibility hews more toward comic book cool than the musical’s Grand Guiginol monstrosities. As a consequence, Sapochnik’s filmmaking is robbed of its urgency. A milieu that should seem impossibly weird and foreboding instead comes across as a rough facsimile of a standard science-fiction future. Similarly, the narrative that unfolds within it never escapes a tired, clichéd template.
Jude Law and Forest Whitaker star as Remy and Jake the repo men, who have been both buddies and rivals since the fourth grade. Their corporate hack boss (Liev Schreiber) sends them on missions to retrieve the unpaid for organs of everyone from wealthy businessmen to hotshot musical artists to your everyday overweight schlubs. The men might believe they’re engaged in a respectable pursuit, but they are in fact angels of death forced to reclaim company property by any means necessary.
Though Jake loves the power and nervous energy of their job, Remy desperately wants a way out in the form of a transfer to the company’s sales department. He begins to turn away from his friend and their shared pursuit but heart failure, an implant and mounting debt of his own threaten to, in the words of Michael Corleone, “pull him back in.”
The filmmakers would love for you to sympathize and identify with Jake as he gets wrapped up in what becomes the age-old innocent man on the run formula. Law makes that difficult. He plays things as blankly as he did as Gigolo Joe in A.I., drawing on a perceived reservoir of charm and smooth, wide-eyed pensiveness to bring Remy alive. Yet the character never really seems human. He handles everything – fighting bad guys, coping with betrayal, expressing love – with such movie star suaveness that it never feels like he faces much of a threat to his well-being. Law, commonly stereotyped as a pretty boy, must have taken this physical role with the intention of broadening that perception. But the part demands a certain elemental rawness that escapes him. He might rip out human entrails and slice throats, but he looks great doing so and hardly breaks a sweat.
The lead’s delicate quality is mirrored in the slick, assembly line nature of the overall production. The picture recycles an endless stream of conventions – including the blend of sleek, white modernist spaces and washed out ruins that comprise the futuristic setting and the revenge plot at its core – and imbues them with an indifferent spirit. Even the smallest details, such as line readings, are not immune. The way Law says “finish this” when asked what he wants to do now by love interest Beth (Alice Braga) is so brazenly ripped off from so many other movies that it’s not clear why he bothered.
Competently made, with an inspired fight scene or two, the movie is not without merits. It goes through the paces with adequate speed and keeps the mind from wandering too far from the events onscreen. Yet the half baked political allusions fall flat, the story remains stuck on auto pilot, inspiring no visceral reaction, and Repo Men proves far less ambitious than it thinks it is.
The Upside: The film is passable, not complete torture and a reasonable choice for a mindless entertainment.
The Downside: That upside only holds true if you’re determined not to think while watching the movie and if the prospect of virtually every element being a cliché of some kind.
On the Side: The movie has nothing whatsoever to do with Alex Cox’s ’80s movie Repo Man, which starred Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez.