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Gristle can't give 'Repo Men' any taste

POSTED: March 17, 2010 10:00 p.m.
/Universal Pictures

Forest Whitaker, from left, Jude Law and Liev Schreiber are ruthless organ extractors in "Repo Men."

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“Repo Men” is an “interesting” movie in the same way the “Bodies” exhibition (the one with human cadavers variously posed) is “interesting” art. Is this good art? Bad art? Is it art at all? Answers to these questions vary widely, but no one can deny that it’s “interesting.”

“Repo Men” is sure to inspire a similarly wide range of responses.

The movie is set in a world in which synthetic replacement organs have become as common as collagen. It seems almost everybody has at least one artificial organ. It’s as if the cosmetic surgery craze turned inward and ran even more rampant.

The biggest maker and seller of these artificial organs is The Union. Frank (Liev Schreiber) is the company’s CEO, and he is a ruthless salesman. He and the entire company use high-pressure tactics to sell these incredibly expensive organs and persuade customers to finance them at outrageously high interest rates.

Inevitably, most customers can’t pay their bills, so The Union sends repo men to take back the organs, which usually involves killing the customer. Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are the best repo men in the business. They’ve been best friends since the fourth grade, served in the military together and have a uniquely close friendship.

Remy and Jake enjoy their work, coldly competing for the highest number of kills and laughing as they treat customers like nothing more than meat.

The complication arises when Remy is knocked into a coma and nearly killed on the job. He regains consciousness to find that Jake and Frank have implanted him with an artificial heart.

Now, Remy can no longer kill indiscriminately, and he, like all his former victims, can’t repay the money he owes to The Union. He goes on the run, soon picking up a fellow delinquent borrower and love interest named Beth (Alice Braga).

From that point on, “Repo Men” is a moderately entertaining action film— so long as you don’t mind relentless, gratuitous violence. Remy and Beth kill scores of people in increasingly brutal ways.

Which is why “Repo Men” fails completely as serious science fiction. Remy supposedly develops a newfound appreciation for life and therefore cannot kill overdue clients. So why is it he has no problem killing about 100 people in the final act? Why are the lives of company henchmen worth less than people with organ transplants — even though Remy was very recently a company henchman himself?

And Remy repeatedly kills when it just isn’t necessary. He and the filmmakers seem to get off on it. Human life has little value, both before and after Remy’s change of conscience, so what’s the point?

It’s an orgy of violence that undercuts the filmmaker’s attempts to create thinking-man’s science fiction. That’s a shame, because the premise is genuinely interesting in the context of our current economic hardships.

Many Americans are struggling to pay off debts and avoid repossession of their homes, cars, etc. The seemingly heartless lenders charge a figurative arm and leg and further punish those who can’t quite keep up with payments.

“Repo Men,” in which lenders literally extract body parts when borrowers fall behind, could have captured the essence of that real situation. But at some point the filmmakers decided that carnage and blood spatter are more important than telling a meaningful story.

There’s one level on which this film works well, and that’s as B-grade, exploitative science fiction reminiscent of cult classics like “Logan’s Run” and “Soylent Green.” Just like those movies, “Repo Men” ignores considerations of taste, freely playing with disturbing ideas and shocking us with bizarre, lurid images.

In fact, “Repo Men” contains the most bizarre sex scene I’ve ever seen outside of a David Cronenberg (“Videodrome,” “M. Butterfly”) film. I’m tempted to recommend the movie only because you have to see it to believe it.

But even if that intrigues you, “Repo Men” will be better if you borrow it at a bargain price.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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