Repo Men is confounding mess of a movie. It wildly throws itself between genres, tones, and styles. What’s so frustrating is that some moments are tons of fun, others are irritatingly melancholy, and then there are moments where the film is so bad it’s good. It’s a whirlwind of a picture that sweeps you up and then smashes you back into the ground. It’s fun and painful at the same time and those sides draw a stalemate in the story of guys who will murder you because you can’t make a payment on your artificial organs. It’s a kind of story that could go in any direction, but it’s amazing how far it tries to go in every direction.
Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are “repo men” for The Union, a corporation that sells artificial organs (called “artiforgs”) to desperate people. When people can’t make the payments, the repo men come in, kill you, and take the artiforg back. It’s never answered why this business is so successful and no one would expose the gruesome nature of its transactions.
Within the first ten minutes, Repo Men has already jumped between two completely different tones. You have Remy starting off the film with a self-serious meditation on the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat (a cat that is inside a box with poison gas that could launch at any moment is deemed both dead and alive until the box is opened). Then the film flips over to a scene of Remy putting on some headphones and listening to music as he carves open a client who couldn’t pay the bill on his artificial liver. Later, Remy and Jake gleefully murder about thirty people in repo-ing organs. The men are sadists but there’s a dark comedy to the glee they take in their jobs.
But then Remy gets a taste of his own medicine when he’s electrocuted during a job, has an artificial heart forced upon him by The Union, and then discovers that his fake heart came with a real conscience as he can no longer do his job. Already, this is a narrative problem: Remy didn’t request the heart. In fact, when he learns he has it, he tries to rip it out of his body. He never signed a contract, so when he falls behind on his payments, it doesn’t make sense for him to get repo’d.
On the run, Remy encounters Beth (Alice Braga), a drug-addict who’s filled with forged artiforgs. Remy takes it upon himself to protect Beth as an act of personal redemption. Again, there’s a problem here because it’s likely that Beth would be safer on her own than with a man The Union is actively hunting down. From this point, the film becomes a chase-romance. Somehow, it gets sillier from there but I won’t spoil the bafflement.
There are some directors who can swing wildly between genres and tones and always land on their feet. Miguel Sapochnik is not one of those directors. He has acumen shooting action and comedy and crafting a semi-distinct world (all future cities seem to lie in the shadow of Blade Runner, which in turn lies in the shadow of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). But it never comes together and while it creates a unique ride, but one that’s hard to fully embrace because it can flip from a fun movie to a groan-worthy self-serious one at any time.
Repo Men does have some wholly positive aspects. Forest Whitaker is amazing in this film and he effortlessly follows the tone every scene, no matter how maudlin, comedic, or genuinely dramatic. With a movie as erratic as Repo Men, that’s a tremendous feat. Also providing a nice supporting performance is Liev Schreiber as a slimy, smarmy Union exec.
Ultimately, Repo Men is a very silly movie that is best when it knows it’s being silly. There’s surprisingly little subtext relating to our failed health care system as the film puts most of its attention on Remy’s redemption and his skill at jamming knives into people. There’s also a poorly written set up for a later event that most moviegoers will see coming and cause them to keep their distance due to the circumstances surrounding the foreseen event. But just as there’s a poor set up on this front, there’s a good premise that crackles when it’s properly handled. Sadly, Repo Men is too erratic and leaves the audience wondering if they should embrace the next scene or just brace themselves.