The past two years have brought us not one but two films about a dystopian future in which a megacorporation doles out life-saving human organs on credit, then brutally repossesses them from those who can’t pay. The action thriller Repo Men is based on a science-fiction novel by Eric Garcia, while last year’s Repo! The Genetic Opera was a film version of a rock musical first performed in the 1990s. Though the thematic confluence may be a coincidence, it just happens to occur as our nation debates the ethics of a profit-driven health care system.
Too bad both movies are so, well, silly. Repo Men makes some clumsy attempts at topical satire, but it doesn’t succeed at that or much of anything else. Not only does it steal elements of its plot and setting from every dark, futuristic film ever made (particularly Blade Runner and Brazil), but writers Garcia and Garrett Lerner and first-time director Miguel Sapochnik fail the Sci Fi 101 assignment of setting up a believable frame for the action.
Jude Law and Forest Whitaker play lifelong buddies who share the one-of-a-kind job of ripping bloody organs from the living. They do this with glee wherever they happen to catch up with the debtor, sometimes with surgical gloves and sometimes not, and never with anything resembling medical protocol. Think of the “Live Organ Transplants” segment from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (“So, can we have your liver, then?), only with more gore and less dry humor.
If you enjoy your comedy tasteless and pitch-black, you may still find this scenario borderline amusing. Put in a larger context, though, it makes no sense. The Repo Men work for a med-tech giant called The Union; back at the office, their boss (Liev Schreiber) and his sales team are busy luring new customers with the promise of costly artificial organs at a low, low APR of 17.9 percent.
Schreiber makes a wonderfully smooth satanic salesman, easing his targets right past the question of what happens if they default. (His performance is the best thing in the film.) Meanwhile, though, vital questions about this system remain unanswered, such as (a) Since the Repo Men don’t bother to hide their work, is the penalty really a secret?; (b) Does The Union’s business model — aggressive selling followed by speedy, aggressive repossession — make as much sense for human organs as it does for cars? What about the PR fallout?; and (c) Why do so many people in the future need organ transplants, anyway?
The questions only keep multiplying when Law’s character experiences a change of heart — yes, both metaphorically and literally. His moral awakening is meaningless, however, because we haven’t learned how the Repo Men became sociopaths in the first place, or anything much about their personalities. Their mantra, “A job’s a job,” doesn’t explain the fun they apparently have doing it. We never see them rip organs from someone too young or old or weak to fight back — a scene that would change the film’s tone instantly from Grand Guignol to Schindler’s List. Some dystopias manage to keep the audience balanced on a knife-edge between anarchic excitement and queasy horror — A Clockwork Orange, for instance. Sapochnik doesn’t get there.
Sidestepping the uglier implications of its premise, the movie stays on the level of dumb action. And it is very dumb — as in, so sloppily handled it’s often hard to tell what’s going on. I feel duty bound to point out that, in its last 20 minutes, Repo Men becomes surprisingly watchable. That’s also when it becomes most ludicrous. Chances are that, in our own dark future, this film will be remembered solely by virtue of its easy confusion with the immortal ’80s punk comedy Repo Man.