Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the plot of Equilibrium (2002). And Logan’s Run (1976). And (kinda) Minority Report (2002). Lack of originality has never stopped Hollywood, of course, so here we are. This time around, the world the film takes place in is one where people in need of an organ transplant can purchase a mechanical version of the body part from conglomerate The Union. They are hugely expensive (a pancreas costs over half a million dollars), but the company graciously offers payment by instalments, so even people of few means can afford the new technology. Of course, if you neglect to make your payments, it’s only right that the company take back its property.
This is where our protagonist comes in. Remy (Jude Law) is a “repossession technician”. In other, less euphemistic terms, he finds tardy customers, cuts them open and removes the merchandise. Said customers don’t tend to survive the procedure.
It’s an ugly job, but it pays well, and Remy isn’t the type of guy to draw up strict moral boundaries, anyhow. When his son asks him about Romans one day, he commends their scorched earth tactics as “pretty effective” and replies “Because they didn’t have any guns” when asked why the Romans used to stone people to death. His first reaction to the development of a new neural implant isn’t about the medical implications, but a concern about how best to remove it in case of tardy payment.
Still, despite the money, his wife is uncomfortable with the whole “killing people for fun and profit” thing, and after a particularly unnerving episode involving a barbecue at Remy’s home, his partner Jake (Forest Whitaker), a taxi, and a mobile phone, she gives him an ultimatum: either he applies for a lower-paying, but less grisly, job in the company’s sales department, or she’s going to leave him.
Spoilers didn’t pay their bills and fled to below this line
Remy agrees to do one last hit. Naturally, it does not go as planned; he has an accident, and when he wakes up, his wife has already left him. So has his heart, replaced by an artificial unit, courtesy of his boss (Liev Schreiber). Well, “courtesy”; he gets the employee discount (presumably, it’s never mentioned), but still owes the company a whole lot of money, money he won’t be able to earn as a desk jockey. That’s bad, because it turns out he’s suddenly unable to perform — ironically, now that he doesn’t have a heart anymore, he has gained empathy and identifies with his former victims. You can probably guess where this is going. I posted a spoiler warning above, but c’mon — nothing about this movie is surprising, it follows the formula exactly. That really wouldn’t have mattered; I don’t mind predictability when it’s at least entertaining. And that’s the problem.
For the first 40 minutes or so, this movie is essentially a black comedy, even a satire: it draws humour from ridiculous situations, overblown violence, a laughable voice-over, and the protagonist being something of a likeable dick. That’s the movie the trailers advertise, and it’s the movie I wanted to see. Unfortunately, once Remy starts running from his former colleagues, the film starts taking itself seriously. Which is a pity, because while the introduction is a bit lengthy for what amounts to exposition, it could have led to something reminiscent of a pastiche/parody like Hot Fuzz (2007), or a parody/satire like Shoot ’em Up (2007), or even “just” a dumb action film with a cool premise.
There are glimpses of satire throughout the rest of the movie (such as a marker helpfully labelled “pink door”, which just so happens to be what Remy is looking for: a pink door), but for the most part, it’s pretty dreary. There’s no point in showing us minutes upon minutes of pretend soul-rending because two men who were once like brothers are pitted against each other. There is clearly supposed to be a lot of dramatic power in the numerous showdowns Remy vs. Jake, but it doesn’t work, because one is obviously a psychopath and the other doesn’t start caring until he (literally) has a change of heart. Remy knows having a mechanical ticker is practically a death sentence if you’re not rich, so much so he tries to rip it out directly after his accident. So it’s not like he was deceived by the company; he willingly participated in their schemes, and had fun doing so. Tragic confrontations are only affecting if the audience finds the characters involved sympathetic or identifiable, and Remy and Jake really aren’t. That’s time that could have been used productively by showing us more of the world beyond the organ trade; I can excuse a less than cohesive storyline when the world-building makes up for it, which this film doesn’t even really attempt to do.
I feel like a better approach would have been to go all the way. You want to make a biting satire, don’t stop halfway. The film makers could have retained much of the plot and gotten a much more cohesive result by not fiddling with Remy’s attitude. As is, he shifts very quickly from “cold-hearted bastard” to “champion of the oppressed” just because he now feels how it is to be in their shoes. I think he could have remained an unsympathetic character who got behind on his payments for other reasons (maybe the company gave him a flawed product) and had to pretend to be a rebel to get his revenge and/or to survive. That would at least have been something new, exciting, and probably entertaining to watch. Jude Law is a good actor, but “generic brooding action hero who brings down the villains with inside knowledge” is a boring role, at least when written like it is here.
I kinda suspect “my idea” was the original concept for the movie, before the studio messed with it and attempted to make it more palatable for wide audiences (well, joke’s on Universal, because this film was a mega flop). Its second part feels like a whole different film. Remy gets conveniently divorced after his accident so he can hook up with a younger, prettier, and less bitchy woman whom he can save from death first (because that’s the hero’s job in a Hollywood movie, dontcha know?) and who can repay the favour later by fighting alongside him. He also doesn’t have to get saddled with a kid, or much in the way of guilt or regret over his previous actions; “hide -> plan -> take the fight to them” is the formula, and this part of the film religiously abides by it. He doesn’t even have to deal with the people he used to hunt, who must understandably be rather angry with him; it’s handwaved in one scene, and never comes up again.
So, as a parody of action movies, it doesn’t work at all, because it’s too generic and not self-aware enough. And what’s left of the satire comes almost completely from the first parts of the film, where the premise of this world is set up. A world where corporations seemingly run the government, or are at least allowed to operate without much impunity. Where the repossession epidemic (if you want to call it that), which came with the recent financial crisis, is extrapolated to an extreme. Where cynical salesmen are pitching outrageous payment plans to people who they know won’t be able to pay. Where people who are “just doing their jobs” are telling themselves that to avoid thinking about the lives they ruin. I get it. But it could have been so much stronger and so much less pat if the movie had actually built on that concept, either by populating the film with strong supporting characters, or by taking the ideas further and playing with them a bit. Gattaca (1997) gave us lots of implications and thought-provoking questions from a fairly simple premise (although I’ll grant that Gattaca benefits from hindsight, because it was pretty prescient and its ideas continue to resonate).
People who have seen the film may be wondering when I’ll talk about the twist at the end. Because of course there is a twist; its presence is as much of a cliché as ending the film on a positive note would have been. I don’t feel like talking about it much, because it doesn’t change anything. Sure, on the surface, it recontextualises – and nullifies – much of what we saw before. But it doesn’t add anything to the characters except maybe a little more twisted dimension to Jake. My complaints about the film losing its sense of humour started long before the stated point of divergence. Thematically, I can kinda see how there’s supposed to be irony in the fact that Remy just wants to be free of the company’s influence, and now never will be, but both endings turn the film sideways a little and are more about choices made by Jake. The implication there would be that the cycle continues, that now Jake is on the hook, but so what? Like I stated before, I don’t really care about Jake. And we never see him hesitate to track down and put down a target, so there isn’t going to be much of a cycle off-screen, presumably.
Plus, it’s always a bad sign when the movie makes sense (for action movie standards, anyway) even if you disregard the twist. Remy defeating dozens of opponents single-handedly was all a dream? That would have had more impact if he hadn’t slaughtered his way through more than that number earlier in the film, in a scene set before the brain damage set in. Jake referencing a private conversation he shouldn’t have known about (something explicitly mentioned as an indicator on the disc’s audio commentary, which I partially listened to) can be explained away by another line earlier in the film. It’s also cheating when the more surreal moments later on are handwaved as dream logic but the surreal moments of the film’s beginning are supposed to be real; where does that leave the satire?
Before I ever heard of Repo Men, I had watched a clip from a movie so similar in concept that I’m surprised there’s apparently no connection between them: Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008). It’s told from the perspective of the “customers”, presumably less formulaic, and it’s a musical. I bought the DVD of Repo Men when it was on offer and available cheaply, and I may do the same for its cousin.