Visceral 'Men' Moves
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
The first line in "Repo Men" ("What do I remember?") sets an oddly passive and cerebral tone for a big-budget sci-fi actioner. Our tough-guy hero (Jude Law) answers his own Proustian question by citing the paradox of Schrodinger's cat, the intellectual stumper that theorizes that a cat in a box containing a pellet of poison gas is simultaneously dead and alive, until the box is opened. (Don't ask, it's quantum mechanics.) Such an intro invites us into a twilight zone where smart satire coexists with blood-and-guts violence. And by film's end the memory of that cat, both dead and alive, should deliver a knockout blow to where you think "Repo Men" has taken you.
Eric Garcia, author of the source novel "Repossession Mambo" and co-author of the screenplay with Garrett Lerner (writer and producer of TV's "House"), was aiming for the absurdist flavor of "Brazil" or "RoboCop." Admirable ideal, but "Repo Men" isn't cookin' with quite that kind of gas. The strain of cramming a nonlinear novel into a straight-ahead narrative shows, and there's at least one action scene too many, as though the filmmakers felt compelled to cater to the ticket-buying demographic that prefers beat-downs to black humor. Still, despite its flaws, this ambitious parable is enjoyable, and sometimes viscerally moving.
It's always a pleasure when a genre film works its subversive magic on some cultural cow too sacred or unglamorous to be the subject of a mainstream movie. "Repo Men" (no relation to Alex Cox's classic 1984 "Repo Man") takes the greed of today's health insurance corporations to a bloody extreme: In future-time, a company called the Union hawks mechanical organs at exorbitant prices, while making its real profit by repossessing a heart or a lung or a kidney when the hapless recipient can't keep up with the payments. Yep, the Union's repo men literally cut out the transplanted organs and boogie, leaving clients to die.
As the Union's top salesman, Liev Schreiber achieves scary perfection: His inhumanly unctuous, "You owe it to your family. You owe it to yourself," virtually mesmerizes ailing clients into signing a contract with the devil. Handling bloody bags of reclaimed organs like supermarket meat, he's deadpan funny, like a mad scientist amused by his own atrocities.
That lunatic glee is shared by Remy (Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker), the Union's best reclamation agents. Careening around a "Blade Runner"-wannabe city full of big-screen Union commercials ("Helping you get more out of you"), these longtime buddies act out like "f---in' children," in their boss's words. Rousting a "nest" of past-due folk on the run, the duo laughs it up, firing red taser beams as though it was a turkey shoot, fighting to rack up the most repo'd organs. Afterward, they trade jokes with thuggish colleagues about their victims' last-ditch efforts to save themselves before dancing the "horizontal mambo."
Sharp-witted actors Law and Whitaker are all over this nasty business. Law's Remy is all macho grace, torn between family and fun. But Jake relishes his work unconditionally. The big man's like a lethal, single-minded child, happy to play with dead things. His expression metamorphoses from boyish delight to death-mask in mere seconds, recalling the jolly monster Whitaker nailed in "The Last King of Scotland."
When an accident results in Remy's getting an artificial heart, child's play ends for him. The violation of his own flesh awakens empathy and a sense of mortality; no longer can he slice into another man's "meat." It's as though this Tin Man literally lacked a heart till now. Like the South African bureaucrat in "District 9," Remy has become one of Them.
"Repo Men" turns ever more surreal and dreamlike as Remy descends into the dark, dangerous underworld (ironically called Paradise) where Union debtors hide. Displaying his scar like religious stigmata, the former repo agent casts himself as the savior who will brave White Rooms and Pink Doors to take down the Union. Buffed to the nines, a knife in each outstretched hand, Law projects a perfect fantasy in which he's superhero and beautiful angel.
In the film's most bizarrely effective and outrageous scene, a man and woman kiss, caress and embrace passionately, while cutting deep into each other's body to nullify all their debts; it's a savage version of "I'm really into you," intimacy in the uncompromising style of David Cronenberg.
One of the movie's special pleasures is the smart use made of carefully placed music (Rosemary Clooney, Nina Simone, Toots and the Maytals, et al). That hallucinatory Cronenbergian coupling moves to the heavy beat of Moloko's "Sing It Back": "Take me and do as you will ... I am the zombie your wish will command me." Tells you all you need to know about life and love in the very bad dream that is "Repo Men."
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.