The best science-fiction, like the best horror, manages to be about more than one thing, using the outrageous to illustrate the universal. “Repo Men” doesn’t quite hit all of its targets, but it hits enough of them to count as a welcome and even exciting new SF vision. Jude Law and Forest Whitaker have surprisingly rich chemistry in the film, and despite one major storytelling stumble, it’s soulful enough to linger.
Law stars as Remy, a repo man working for The Union, the company that makes the artificial organs that have revolutionized health care in the future. The organs are obscenely overpriced, and patients are cornered into buying, sometimes going black market. It’s a genuinely interesting industry to imagine and explore, and Miguel Sapotchnik’s taken as many cues from the reality of modern New York and Tokyo as from the futurescapes of “Brazil” or “Blade Runner” in bringing his vision to the screen. Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner, working from Garcia’s novel, have played fast and free with structure on the film, and as a result, it feels like you end up watching two or three different movies.
The first movie’s probably the most fun, with Remy and Jake (Forest Whitaker) working the job. It’s matter-of-fact, observational, all character and chemistry. Law etches Remy as a charismatic cad, a guy who can’t admit to himself how much he enjoys the hunt. He’s good at it, and a part of him enjoys the pain he causes someone else. He’s a thug, born and raised, and his job is his excuse to keep that up, to indulge it with approval. That’s the bond he shares with Jake, since he’s the exact same way. And as long as that’s the movie, it’s just plain dark bloody fun. Liev Schreiber plays Frank, their boss at The Union, and he’s an absolutely ruthless salesman, well-oiled and unburdened by any vestige of humanity. He’s sensational in the part. It’s one of those roles that exists like a gift to an actor, a supporting role that gets a high percentage of the good lines in the movie.
The second movie, which I think is good but not as much fun, is what happens when Remy is hurt badly on the job, requiring him to get one of the artificial organs put into himself. Suddenly, he’s one of the damned souls in the system, owned by the company he works for. That makes sense, and there’s real possibility in the idea that he can’t pay and he ends up hunted by his best friend. The action’s pretty great, staged with energy and wit.
Then there’s a third movie in there, about a guy in crisis whose wife just plain can’t handle it. And when she leaves, he turns to someone else in crisis and builds something new with her, something that might even be healing for both of them. I want to like that story. One of my favorite scenes in the whole film is the way this particular storyline builds to its final emotional crescendo. It’s a great SF movie moment, and that is enough to forgive the film’s nearly unforgiveable conclusion, a narrative move that devalues almost the entire film before it. If most of the film makes me think of the tone and style of “Robocop” (a compliment), the film’s big finish is all “Total Recall” (not a compliment), and it’s not a fresh enough payoff to justify undoing any investment the audience might have in these characters. I’m not sure if it’s from the book or if it was created by the screenwriters or if it’s Sapochnik’s inventions, but it is the film’s one major misstep, one that risks ruining the film for people.
Technically, the film’s impressive on all fronts. It’s a commercially-designed functional future that Sapochnik’s designed here, and the effects give everything a real-world polish that perfectly supports the production design, which all informs the performances. As a world, it works. The score and the song soundtrack are both strong and memorable. And even so, even loving the eye for detail that the director exhibits, I’m not quite sold on “Repo Men” as a whole picture, and that bothers me a little bit. It’s a recommendation with caveats. It’s good but. If you’re fine with almost, you’ll get what you’re looking for in “Repo Men,” and considering how ambitious the film is, “almost” is praise, and not entirely faint.
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