Repo Men frustrates because it is so very, very close to being a truly good film. The pieces are in place, but right at the beginning the film telegraphs a message about its end, one that promises to undermine everything you’re watching and ruin everything that came before. I spent the whole movie wishing that telegraphed bit was a misdirection, a way of fucking with the audience, but it’s not. The ending is just as bad as that moment telegraphed, and it’s actually made worse by coming after – and negating – some truly awesome moments.
It’s the near future and advances in medicine have made it possible to create almost any kind of artificial organ. But while it’s possible to get new eyes, new joints, new lungs, new hearts, it isn’t terribly affordable. The Union, the company that sells these artiforgs, is willing to work with customers, though, and they create payment plans that keep you in debt for as long as your new organs will hold out. The down side is that if you don’t keep up your end and your account goes delinquent for more than three months, a repo man will arrive at your door, taser you and then remove the artiforg from your body. It’s rare to survive such impromptu surgery.
Jude Law is Remy, the best repo man in the business. He has a wife and a kid, and his wife really wants him to move into sales – the repo end of the game pays, but it’s very dangerous, as people are likely to fight back when you tell them you’re here to take their lungs. But his partner, played by Forest Whitaker (the film asks us to believe that Law and Whitaker went to grade school together. It’s a testament to the stuff that does work that we’re willing to put aside all our qualms and buy the flashbacks), doesn’t want Remy to get behind a desk.
As the world of repo keeps getting more dangerous – the artiforg delinquency problem appears to be hitting critical mass, and people are setting up refugee communities to hide from and fight back against the repo men – Remy suddenly finds himself seeing the issue from a different perspective, as a repo job (the proverbial one last job) goes bad, leaving Remy with an artiforg heart and a big monthly payment to The Union.
The film sails fairly smoothly up until this point. Law is affable as the non-chalantly brutal Remy, although I was sort of more intrigued by the divide between his violent career and his suburban lifestyle than by him getting a fake heart. Whitaker is great as Jake, bringing a delightfully twitchy quality to the role. You really get the feeling that if Jake wasn’t doing this his life would be a disaster, that his own violent impulses would be channeled into something far more illegal. The two leads don’t exactly have mesmerizing charisma, but this isn’t like Cop Out where I couldn’t even believe the leads knew each other, let alone worked together for a decade. If anything, it’s easy to believe that Remy’s slow move towards a desk job has created an invisible barrier between the two friends.
But once the repo man finds out how the other half lives the film hits a massive speed bump that threatens to kill the whole thing. Remy’s wife, played by the usually amazing Carice van Houten, is a one-dimensional harridan, a completely unbelievable bitch who breaks up with her husband while he’s in heart surgery. van Houten showed so much range and depth in Black Book but here she’s reduced to being a cheap, unsupported plot point. Writers Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner, along with visually talented director Miguel Sapochnik, spent so much time creating a very believable world for Remy to live in that when they can’t find time to create a believable wife it feels like a splash of cold water on all the fantasy.
And it gets worse for a little while. Remy suddenly spirals, unable to repo artiforgs now that he knows what it’s like to have one. And then he suddenly and completely falls in love with and helps detox a drug addict, artiforg-riddled singer played by Alice Braga. Braga’s awful, and while you can understand why Remy likes her on a surface level – the lady has looks – there’s nothing else about her that makes sense.
Every time I was ready to check out of the film because of stuff like this, Sapochnik goes to a great set piece. The director name-dropped Paul Verhoeven to me when I interviewed him, and you can see the influence in the over-the-top violent action scenes, all of which are a blast. The film’s second act pacing is a drag, but it’s worth waiting through interminable bullshit to get to dazzlingly audacious fight scenes and bloody battles. This is what makes the film so difficult for me – there are a ton of missed opportunities, but none of them come in the action department. Sapochnik stages increasingly excellent fights, ranging from a melee in the hold of a cargo ship to a shoot out on a sterile white factory floor to a hallway fight that homages Oldboy and then tries to one-up it by adding a hacksaw to the mix. This all culminates in a scene so brilliant, so over the top, so gross and so original that it elevates the film to a whole new level. This scene, which is one part love scene, one part surgery, is positively Cronenbergian, and will stick with you long after the other aspects of the movie have faded away. In a couple of years, when this film is slowly discovered on home video – where expectations are lowered – this will the scene that people tell their friends about. This one scene makes the whole movie worth seeing, in my opinion.
But then it’s all undermined. The ending of this film is among the worst endings I’ve ever seen, not just because it’s telegraphed but because it adds nothing to what came before. It just ruins everything that came before. There’s a way to execute the film’s ending as it exists, but the screenplay handles it all wrong. I’m sorry to be so obtuse here, but I don’t want to spoil the finale (even though I bet you figure it out ten minutes or so into the movie). Suffice it to say that while the ending would have been kind of lame no matter how it was achieved, the movie gets to it in the worst possible way.
Even still, I find myself wanting to recommend the movie in a basic way. There’s a lot that goes haywire in Repo Men, but there’s also a lot that really works. Besides the excellent action sequences (which sometimes are too far apart) there’s a show-stopping performance from Liev Schreiber as Remy’s sleazy boss at The Union. Repo Men is missing a Curtwood Smith, but Schreiber acts as its Ronny Cox, and he’s perfectly fun in the part. Law is strong as well, and even though the film is built, Frankenstein-style, out of other genre movies – you could spend half the movie listing references and homages and rip-offs – Sapochnik synthesizes them into something that feels enough like its own beast to warrant its own existence.
But the script is kind of a disaster, and that’s a real pity for a movie that was in script development for a decade. The problems with the script are so egregious that it’s hard to believe that no one thought to do something about them, like giving Remy’s wife any traits beyond being a bitch. And that ending… ugh.
As a first feature from Miguel Sapochnik, though, Repo Men
is promising. The film looks great, and his sense of action is terrific. The fights are varied and well shot and exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next. With a better script, that is.
7 out of 10