If you’ve ever seen that MTA bus ad that claims people would take AIDS testing more seriously if the disease affected their faces, then you already know half of Repo Men’s stultifyingly facile approach to its main theme. Based on a novel by co-writer Eric Garcia, Repo Men’s topical thrust is that people would be more concerned about the inhuman effects of bank foreclosures if the shadowy people in charge, in this case “The Union,” were foreclosing on their internal organs instead of their homes.
To give resonance to that pedantic, half-baked conceit, director Miguel Sapochnik apes the severe gravitas of Children of Men: The abandoned building that Remy (the ever-adequate but never impressive Jude Law), our “Repo Man” protagonist, begins the story from could be a neighboring building to the one in the finale of Alfonso Cuarón’s film. The trouble is Repo Men spends most of its time in the glitzier parts of its world, which look more like the neon-infected cities of The Fifth Element or Blade Runner than Cuarón’s dour thriller. And when you liberally pilfer, I mean, pay homage to the look, tone, and eventually, whole scenes from other, better genre films, that combination of a severe tone and a cartoon setting proves fatal.
Repo Men’s dearth of sustainable charisma, warmth, and energy begins with its leading male. Remy’s an ex-soldier turned repo man, Union-sponsored surgeon-cum-assassins that extract expensive artificial organs from people that renege on their payments. He of course only learns the inhuman nature of his profession once he himself has to replace his heart with a prosthetic. His buddy Jake (Forest Whitaker) sees Remy’s transformation and tries to help him out of his funk by forcing Remy to get back to work (“A job’s a job,” Jake intones as if reciting a hack self-help guru’s mantra) but Remy can’t do it anymore. His hands shake and his face is pale when he puts people under the knife and to make matters worse, his wife (Carice van Houten), who recently gave him the ultimatum of either getting a desk job or losing her, just put her foot down and kicked him out (why she is objecting to his job knowing that she’s married to a psycho ex-military man that used to get his kicks from blowing up tanks and starting fights is, frankly, a bit nebulous).
From here, Remy turns to the seamy underbelly of the city for immediate refuge and eventually a kind of solipsistic salvation. He finds both when he stumbles upon Beth (Alice Braga), a lady hobo with so many robo parts she makes Inspector Gadget seem ill-equipped. Remy takes her off the streets and uses his last days before the repo men come looking for him to help her from being repossessed by the Union. It’s his last-ditch attempt at redemption that makes absolutely no practical sense , but then again, it doesn’t need to—Remy’s in love with Beth. Now they’re two fugitives against an increasingly menacing but still completely uninspired world.
If there was something, anything that made Repo Men’s dismally underdeveloped plot and cookie-cutter dialogue worth recalling, it wouldn’t matter that the film was completely derivative. As it is, ending with scenes that steal directly from THX 1138 and Brazil just seems petty for a film that has no charm or spark of its own. Law under-performs as usual, leaving the bulk of the film to be carried by its supporting cast, of which only Whitaker really delivers a stand-out performance (Liev Schreiber plays a Union rep but he’s in all of four scenes).
Since the rest of Repo Men is a lifeless, over-serious, and uninspired patchwork, the fact that the big climactic fight is a cheap Oldboy knockoff, hammer and all, really begs the viewer to emotionally check out. It’s as if Sapochnik were flaunting his lack of creativity when in reality he’s just assuming that we can and hence should suspend our disbelief for his film considering that we did it for all those other, better ones. I’d rather just rewatch Repo! The Genetic Opera. At least that film was memorably stupid.