Last year there was a DVD release of a movie—a musical, no less—called “Repo: The Genetic Opera,” about taking back replacement organs from customers who failed to pay for them. It had a long gestation—ten years from stage sketch to feature—and was obviously made on a very meager budget, factors that perhaps explain, at least partially, its awfulness (one must never, after all, discount the effect of a breathtaking lack of talent). But “Repo Men,” a big Hollywood effort based on the same idea (thankfully minus the songs, though the bombastic background score by Marco Beltrami is mercilessly loud and oppressive itself), suggests that the premise is simply a losing proposition. Simply put, this is one of the silliest futuristic thrillers ever; what sets it apart, though, is that it’s also one of the most thoroughly—indeed virulently—unpleasant ones you’ll ever see.
Years ago the adaptation of the book by Eric Garcia (who co-scripted) might have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Running Man” mode. Now we get Jude Law with hair closely cropped to resemble a sort of punier version of Jason Statham. He plays Remy, the hard-charging partner of fellow repo man Jake (equally badly-cast Forest Whitaker, who makes it two for two with this and “Our Family Wedding”), a beefy, blustery bruiser. They work for Frank (Live Schreiber), the ultra-sleazy branch head of Union, a company that seduces terminal people into buying expensive artificial replacement organs and signing contracts whose payments they’ll almost certainly default on. When they get ninety days behind schedule, they’re fair game for repossession, and Remy and Jake take to the job with glee and gusto, knocking them out with stun guns and then slicing them open to extract a heart or spleen. (Director Miguel Sapochnik revels in giving us the gory details in edgy close-ups.)
Remy’s wife Carol (Carice van Houten) wants her hubby to switch over to sales, but Frank and Jake aren’t especially keen on that, and when he refuses she decamps with their son Peter (Chandler Canterbury). But that’s not the worst of it for Remy: when he goes out solo to reclaim the heart of an over-the-hill rock musician, the defibrillator malfunctions. He suffers cardiac arrest, and awakens to find that the company has implanted its best replacement heart in him—for the cost of which he’s now liable, of course.
Surely you can see where this is going. The irony positively drips from the screen as the repo man—who’s been transformed by his experience, and so unable to carve up clients as he once did—falls behind in his payments. (He’s apparently on piecework, you see.) Just in case you’re too dense to get the point, the makers throw in a scene where he’s threatened by one of the people he would once have tracked down, who remarks sagely that now he’s the hunted one. But that’s only after Remy’s gone on the lam and taken up with sultry singer Beth (Alice Braga), another runner, who as far as one can tell is made up almost entirely of spare parts and artificial limbs. Of course, the other repo men—including Jake—are hot on their trail.
The picture turns truly goofy in the final reels, when Remy and Beth break into Union’s world headquarters to find and destroy the computer records stored behind what’s called The Pink Door (which rather sounds like the name of a scummy bar), thereby bringing the whole operation to its knees. The sequence includes a long, absurdly choreographed fight scene in which our heroes slash their way through an army of opponents. But that’s followed by an even more appalling one in which, to gain computer access, they have to cut up one another and pretend to return their overdue organs—a bloody dance with sexual overtones that’s like a pornography of violence. (And if a master like Cronenberg couldn’t pull off the mixture in “Crash,” you can hardly expect Miguel Sapochnik to.) But even that’s topped by a cynical, nasty concluding twist that makes the taste in your mouth even fouler.
There’s so much wrong with “Repo Men” that it’s hard to enumerate its offenses. The acting is terrible, with Law’s somber posturing and angst-ridden narration, reeking with empty existential rumination, nearly matched by Whitaker’s grossly overdone turn. Both women are boring—Braga is bland and van Houten irritatingly shrewish. The only person who manages to get the spirit of black comedy the picture’s aiming for is Schreiber, and even he is ultimately defeated by the juvenile crassness of the humor the script offers. Visually production designer David Sandefur and art director Dan Yarhi offer a simulacrum of the “Blade Runner” world that so many movies have mimicked since, and Enrique Chediak photographs it all in the bleak, dank tones meant once again to convey the idea of a gloomy, colorless future. It’s boring.
And ultimately so is the picture as a whole, despite all the action and brutality on display. (And as if the scenes weren’t bad enough the first time around, at one point it offers a montage that forces us to suffer through some of the images again.) Perhaps the premise it shares with “The Genetic Opera” is just one that should be summarily dismissed. (After all, recent history suggests that if organ recipients did go into arrears, the government would step in with a bailout.) But once again, one shouldn’t underestimate the impact of a sheer lack of—or waste of—talent. Garcia’s book was one that, unlike the customers in “Repo Men,” should never have been given a second lease on life.