With health care a source of fierce debate in America, a movie like Repo Men was bound to be made. A bloody satire of the marriage between medicine and capitalism, it's about repo men who collect on overdue artificial organs.
A cult musical about this same topic, called Repo! The Genetic Opera, came out last year, though Repo Men itself was based on a novel called The Repossession Mambo. The idea of scary semi-serial killers who kill to repossess mechanical organs seems to be in the air. Indeed, one of the best parts of Repo Men is the way it captures the sentiments of millions of people who feel dicked over by hospitals and medical insurance companies right now. But the movie's strength is also its problem: Evil medical corporations are a pretty easy target, and Repo Men gives us a black-and-white view of a problem that is in reality all shades of gray.
Remy (Jude Law) is a former soldier who has gone into organ repo work with his war buddy Jake (the awesome Forest Whitaker). They're working for the Union, a vaguely-defined company that sells and repossesses artificial organs. In several flawlessly creepy establishing scenes, we see that the astronomically expensive organs are made "affordable" via installment plans; even if the plans seem to expensive, how can you say no to slick sales guy Frank (Liev Shreiber), when he points out that "you owe it to your family" to stay alive? The unrealistic but still metaphorically satisfying downside to all this is that when you don't pay your monthly installments, Frank will send guys like Remy and Jake out to shoot you up with a tranquillizer and remove the organs.
Though Remy loves his job, and seems to get an almost erotic thrill out of slicing people up, his wife wants him to move out of murdering for a living, and into sales. We can see her point: Remy and Jake have become so corrupt that they makes deals with cab drivers to bring runners by Remy's house on weekends. During a family barbecue, the two men slip out front to slice a guy open in the back of a cab. When Remy's wife catches them, she takes their son and leaves.
Thus begins Remy's slow, blood-spattered slide into moral awareness. He begins to question what it means to have a job devoted to death, and ponder what his work says about him.
Eventually Remy blows out his heart on a job and gets an artificial one from Union. Now his alienation from his formerly beloved job is complete. With an artificial heart beating in his chest, he's no longer able to view his targets as prey. They become, he announces in voice over, "people with children." When he stops being able to repo, his cash runs out very quickly - and eventually he becomes Jake's next repo job. Though Remy's transformation from bad guy to good guy on the lam is as predictable as a Twilight Zone episode, Repo Men is rescued from total mundanity by its stunning set pieces, little scenes that give us a glimpse of what the world will be like when biotech has become as common as consumer electronics are now.
This is a world where people pirate organs, close up surgical wounds with tubes of bioglue, and visit underground biohacking shops the way people today visit their smart neighbor kid to get their X-boxes modded. On the run from Jake and his old buddies, Remy falls in with Beth, a woman whose body is riddled with pirated organs, from her enhanced ears to her replacement knee. Beth takes him to a pirate surgery shop run by Alva (Liza Lapira) and her nine-year-old daughter. "Her hands are much steadier than mine these days," Alva says with a grin as her daughter slices open Beth's knee and fixes her implant. "Yay!" the little girl cries happily as she pops the faulty part out. This pitch-perfect scene captures what it might be like to treat body parts like videogame console systems, which you'd always rather have your kid fix anyway.
The movie is also punctuated by several gorgeously violent sequences (including a surgery sex scene worthy of David Cronenberg). If you don't like gore, this film may not appeal to you; but there's no denying that Repo Men gives good body horror. And it's germane to the story, since this is a movie about how corporations can legally rip people's bodies apart if they don't pay their bills on time.
If only the plot of Repo Men were as inventive as its individual scenes of medical terror and corruption. Unfortunately, Remy's transformation is blandly predictable, as his relationship with Beth - there is even a groanworthy romantic moment before their first kiss when Beth tells Remy that her lips aren't an artificial organ. There's also a "gotcha" twist ending that feels more like an excuse for bad storytelling than a genuine revelation.
This wouldn't be a problem if Repo Men were just a sturdy little B-movie actioner. But it constantly tries - and occasionally succeeds - at being something more than that. This flick is straining to be a social problem movie that Makes A Statement. Unfortunately that statement is so simplified that it feels almost insulting.
Repo Men is a social satire that's all bark and no bite. As TV series like The Shield and The Wire have proven, you can tell a story about corrupt cops that also shows the twisty way their awfulness extends all the way to the top of the food chain. Instead of exploring the gray area cruelty of medical bureaucracy, we're shown easy-to-hate repo men who live to murder, and a nasty salesman who evilly rips off scared families. A pervasive social problem is reduced to a few bad apples. As a friend of mine said after watching Repo Men, "This movie will make executives at Kaiser feel good about themselves."