At first blush, Repo Men appears to be from the Equilibrium school of sci-fi allegory. For those of you not familiar with that film (and why would you be?), Equilibrium was essentially a bare-bones reworking of 1984 with justice achieved via gunplay. There’s a little more than that working under the hood in Repo Men, even if the end experience is curiously empty. It’s not unlike eating a flavored rice cake: tasty enough at the time, but moments later you can scarcely believe you ate anything at all.
Briefly: In the near future, anyone with decent credit–be they dying or merely envious–can sign up for pristine synthetic organs from a corporation called the Union. Prices are astonishingly high and interest rates are angled against the consumer, so repo men like Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are always busy. They do what you think they do: track down past-due organ-bearers, stun them into unconsciousness, and remove the organ by force.
Repo Men is strangely coy about the fact that this is legalized murder–no post-op corpses are shown in their full glory and no one actually uses the words “murder” or “kill” in reference to the work they do. Even the repo guns are stun guns. You expect corporate doublespeak from the Union and its oily manager Frank (Liev Schreiber), but why is the all-seeing camera so shy? For a black satire that’s liberal with the blood n’ guts elsewhere, you’d not expect it to get squeamish in depicting the true horror of its premise. But there you are.
Things change for Remy when his own heart is replaced with a Union synthetic, and he now finds himself unable to carry on with his job. Soon he’s on the run with old buddy Jake in pursuit and–well, it goes about like you’d expect. More or less.
Yes, this is a downright ostentatious metaphor, but a certain class of brassy sci-fi benefits from unsubtle allegory. Repo Men at least makes the time to hint at predatory lending practices and the worsening rich/poor divide that would support such a system. But not much more than that is said; “this sucks” is as far as Repo Men will go.
It does go a little further than your average bear. Consider the ending, whose details I will not reveal but which seasoned movie-goers will be able to divine quickly. At first the “twist” (if I must call it that) felt arbitrary, as if it existed for its own sake, or, worse, as a last stab at sticking with the audience.
Upon further reflection the ending casts Repo Men as a far more cynical movie than I gave it credit for. Will the meta-textual knife-twist register on most people? Probably not, if only because the movie decided to cut both ways with only a few minutes of screen time left.
I bear no animosity to Repo Men; it more or less accomplishes what it sets out to do and conjures a few dark laughs and a handful of inventive twists along the way. The three leads are sufficiently charismatic, though the two lead female roles–Alice Braga as an organ defaulter on the run and Carice Van Houten as Remy’s nagging wife (the one that explicitly states she is his nagging wife)–are entirely superfluous. And in indulging in the typical and the expected–witness the action orgy of the last half hour–Repo Men sells itself out a little too thoroughly to linger afterwards. This is a movie searching for the courage of its convictions.