There’s a moment early in Repo Men in which Jude Law’s Remy, an artificial-organ retrieval operative, is reclaiming the liver of a past-due gentlemen whom Remy has tasered to subdue. In the middle of Remy’s legally-mandated questionnaire about whether the man would like to have an ambulance present, the man’s date attacks Remy. “There’s no need for violence, miss,” assures Remy, and promptly tasers her, too.
Most of Repo Men feels like this. I don’t mean stale one-liners inserted into a premise that devolves into a by-the-book dystopia. I mean, it feels like being tasered.
Theoretically, Repo Men should be a movie for our time because it focuses on the punitive bait-and-switch of privatized healthcare, and the seemingly inhuman ability of corporate employees to enact greed cycles without thought to the human cost–two timely concepts that absolutely deserve screen time, especially tackled metaphorically in a sci-fi setting.
Practically, though, Repo Men is a movie for our time because it’s a hyper-violent, poorly-scripted, nominally sci-fi clunker that fails to deliver on its premise.
And the premise itself isn’t bad. In fact, despite a too-jokey voiceover, the film’s opening fifteen minutes set the stage for a dark comedy that might have pulled off the intended criticism of corporate culture and the many villainies of recession. Repo men wear the short-sleeved dress shirts of a third-tier bank teller, and their corporate headquarters features Disneyfied men-in-lung-suits for kids to play with. Law himself is suitably engaging as a man who’s not only efficient at his job, but might in fact love what he does. Law has always been much better at arch, creepy character parts than as a leading man, and for these fifteen minutes the role suits him. Forest Whitaker is equally strong; if the director had the courage to make his leads interesting rather than likable, this might have turned out to be a satire worth seeing. (Liev Schreiber, a bright spot as the smarmy corporate honcho, goes through the whole movie pretending this is the movie he’s actually in.)
Unfortunately, the film makes a fatal error by giving Remy an on-the-job accident that requires him to get an artificial heart from his own company. Back on the streets, he suddenly finds reserves of sympathy for those he disembowels, and is unable to carry out any of his job tickets–he’s lost the heart for it. (GET IT?) There’s not nearly enough audience goodwill built up for Remy to indulge him in his revelations that life is precious. It’s empty and static, and by the time he’s conveniently cut off by his family and goes on the run to the abandoned housing project of Paradise (GET IT?), the writing’s on the wall.
From here, it’s a full-on Science Fiction After-School Special, as Remy enters an underworld of dirty-yet-plucky folk fleeing repossession (including a sassy nine-year-old surgeon), falls in love with a comely-waif runaway, fights repeatedly and viciously against his ex-partner (sent to repo him, of course), and at last decides to gain freedom for all people, or at least for himself, by finding the Pink Door at Union headquarters and Bringing Down the Man From The Inside. (…Mary Kay?)
These plot markers are largely accomplished through graphic fight scenes, in which Jude Law makes his fight choreographer proud, and the filmmakers finance the entire fake-gore industry for another year. (This is discounting the gore factor of the actual repo scenes.) One of the less explicit fight scenes involves a typewriter dropped from a great height and a pressurized blood balloon. Squeamish moviegoers, take note.
I won’t spoil the last act, not so much out of journalistic integrity as a desire for the unsuspecting to suffer as I suffered. Suffice it to say it’s a series of increasingly-vacuous Big Moments that culminate in a laughably bad denouement–which is nice, I guess, since at least that way the movie gets one laugh.
Larger than my problems with the film itself, though, are my problems with what a film like this represents. With paint-by-numbers violence, stock characters, and half-baked plotting, Repo Men is science fiction only in the vaguest sense. At best, it’s a bad action film in geek’s clothing. At worst, it’s just a marker of how “science fiction” has come to mean “slapping some futuristic CGI over various recycled plot elements and calling it a day.” Repo Men is just another in a long series of examples of why it’s hard for some to believe that science fiction can be an exciting, engaging, and cerebral genre; with friends like Repo Men, who needs enemies?
[This piece originally appeared on Tor.com.]