Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Repo Men

Quite often at the theater, I sit morosely during the trailers, made to watch simultaneously the most marketable aspects of a coming attraction and everything about it that might turn me off the film -- if I wasn't so lazy and unwilling to move from my spot once I find one in a theater, even during the previews, I might take after Gene Siskel and stand out in the lobby to avoid hearing the best jokes for upcoming comedies and the unwittingly revealed plot twists of thrillers. At every screening, I suppress a groan of pain at some (at the very least) of the previews, whose offensive banality is only made worse by the mutterings of the strangers around me and the occasional friend that the film being teased looks "great" and that "we've gotta see that." I found the tables turned, however, in recent weeks as trailers for some gonzo-looking sci-fi ride called Repo Men played in advance of the few films I've attended this year. In all cases, the audiences either laughed derisively or sat in silence, leaving me to wonder, "Am I the only person who thinks this actually looks kind of good?"

That was then. Repo Men boasts a ridiculous premise: in the future, a giant corporation known as The Union sells artificial organs to patients in need of transplants. The business charges exorbitant prices, and if (or when) people cannot pay, The Union sends officials to repossess the unpaid item. Absurd, isn't it? Imagine such a world, where a profit-driven intermediary stood between doctors and patients. How could such a business, which repossesses so much of its property, make any money? What money lender would ever agree to finance staggering loans that lessees cannot hope to pay? Madness, I tell you.

Jude Law plays Remy, one of the Union's titular repo men, a cold professional who cannot be moved by pleas or threats. He zaps an overdue client with a taser, opens the unfortunate sod and reclaims the organ, no matter how vital. As a company courtesy, he asks his victims if they require a trip to the hospital, usually while they're still unconscious. Along with his best friend, the more thuggish Jake (Forest Whitaker), Remy is one of The Union's finest employees. The bond between the two is so strong that when he gets word of Remy's job hunting, Jake rigs their defibrillator to backfire, thus damaging Remy's heart. He'll require a new one from The Union. To pay it off, Remy must remain at the firm, and with Jake.

With such a clever setup, covering both sociopolitical and personal basis, the eventual failure of Repo Men comes as a major disappointment. The dynamic between Remy and Jake, as well as Remy's change of heart regarding his occupation provides an identifiable character base to anchor the social implications, but director Miguel Sapochnik does not expand upon the rich possibilities of Eric Garcia's script.

Once the plot begins to roll, it snowballs away from contemporary relevance, eventually outpacing coherence as well. Remy's wife, who is somewhat creepily made into an unreasonable bitch almost immediately without any background into her character (a particular waste of the wonderful Dutch actress Carice van Houten), throws him out of the house when he awakens from his coma, and soon he flees his bosses, unable to do his job and therefore make his payments. He meets a singer, Beth (Alice Braga), who has an artificial "everything else" to go with Remy's fake heart. Sapochnik speeds through their vague recollection of each other into a romance to insert a requisite sex scene before they band together to tear down the evil corporation through over-kinetic action scenes that dispense of the black comedy of the film's start for facile sight gags and uninteresting stunts. Sapochnik's vision of the future is dull in that drably colored, dimly lit aesthetic that has become cheap shorthand for unwelcoming dystopias, fueling both good films -- Children of Men, The Road -- and bad (don't get me started).

"Vision" may be too generous a word. Repo Men's title proves quite apt, as Sapochnik appropriates design elements, plot devices and genre tropes from nearly every significant science fiction film that can be remotely tied to it. All of its shots of the city skyline of future Toronto resemble Blade Runner's Los Angeles, and the character of Remy resembles Deckard to a T, from his proficiency at his job to the overall irony of his involvement in his occupation (provided you pitch your tent in the "Deckard as replicant" camp). Its "fugitive on the run" scenes recall Logan's Run, and damn near everything -- the notion of a future run through heartless bureaucracy, the black comedy -- from Brazil except the visual ingenuity. It even shamelessly recreates the intense hallway fight from Oldboy, sapping all the fury and comedy out of the original and existing solely, one supposes, because the director thought Park Chan-wook's film was cool.

Repo Men has its moments. Both Law and Whitaker play their parts well, underwritten as they are. Liev Schreiber ported over his gruffness from the Wolverine movie into the role of Remy's boss and one of the public faces of The Union, and his imposing presence adds both weight and humor to his scenes, wherein he gently runs through the same damn speech to every potential client and forces their hand to choose lifelong debt (though that may not be quite so long) over death. Occasionally, the action becomes as goofy and intentionally laughable as its trying to be. But I couldn't help but focus on one scene, early in the film, when Remy, determined to pull off one last job before transferring, decides to reclaim the heart of a favorite musician. In his delusion, he justifies this sickening form of hero worship and god killing as doing the man a favor; "The guy who rips out his heart may as well as well be a fan of his music." It's such a brilliantly comedic and, when the musician resigns himself and asks only to finish one last song, oddly touching scene that it points to a much better film, and the problems begin to arise as soon as this sequence ends.

The first 20 minutes of Repo Men announce the most intelligent and incisive science fiction film in years, containing a brain and a heart. But, like the organs that make up its MacGuffins, they are artificial, merely rote setups to a mind-numbing display. Capped off by a final twist that not only completes the ripoff of one of its sources but adds only one final meaningless gesture. As with all the other artistic thefts in Repo Men, it carries over only the surface, capturing none of the depth beneath it. Perhaps the key to unlocking the film's ultimate ignorance lies in its usage of the example of Schrödinger's cat, at first potentially clever until we finally hear Remy's interpretation of it, which is about as stupid as you'd expect from a man who at one point boasts that he has a "small brain, big skull."

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