Friday, March 19, 2010

Repo Men: Take it back

Repo Men (2010) • View trailer for Repo Men
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, plenty of violence and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.19.10
Buy DVD: Repo Men • Buy Blu-Ray: Repo Men (Unrated) [Blu-ray]

Buried somewhere beneath a wealth of directorial flourishes  and too many efforts to appease arrested-adolescent gorehounds  lies the faintly beating heart of a reasonably imaginative cautionary tale.

Too bad we have to wade through so much distasteful swill, to reach it.
Remy (Jude Law, left) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) truly enjoy their work, the
"wetter" the better. After all, what's not to like about shooting folks and
blowing stuff up ... and then, as an added bonus, harvesting "rented" organs
from deadbeat clients?

At its core, Repo Men is a disturbing what-if scenario that belongs in the good company of Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner and Brazil: all stories that extrapolated current events to pose a series of extremely unsettling questions. The central premise in each of those films has yet to come true, I'm relieved to report ... although Fahrenheit 451 is inching ever closer, thanks to the decreased value of the intelligently printed word, in this 21st century age.

The irony: Books won't be destroyed by fire, but by collective disinterest.

And while the horrific events suggested by Repo Men probably won't become standard operating procedure any time soon, one cannot help chuckling over the timing of this film's release, as it hits theaters amid renewed debates about the desperate need to re-boot this country's health care system.

To be sure, our lives are unlikely to be snuffed by a nameless thug who arrives in the dark of night, with a legally defensible claim to "retrieve" the artificial livers, lungs and hearts that have kept us alive ... but is that really so different from being denied similar conventional medical care via a phone conversation with some bureaucratic drone who wouldn't know a forceps from a fork, who has all the bedside manner of a fence post, and who reads from a script prepared by bean-counters beholden to nobody except their shareholders?

I dunno. As a package, Repo Men may be bombastic, ghastly and reprehensible more often than not, but the core message still gets delivered. The points raised by the novel on which this film is based  The Repossession Mambo, by Eric Garcia, the idiosyncratic writer who also brought us the similarly mordant Matchstick Men  can't help raising the little hairs on the back of our necks.

The time is some unspecified point in the future, when a single corporate behemoth dubbed The Union has secured control of all medical technology relating to artificial limbs and organs. For the equivalent of a mortgage, you, too, can shed your failing heart for a bio-mechanical construct that'll keep you alive (until something else threatens to fail).

The Union's salesfolk are smooth and polished, and they have the patter down pat: If you'd buy a new house to shelter the family you love, wouldn't you also want a new heart, in order to continue being with those same family members?

Ah, but the contract's fine print is left vague, amid cheerful suggestions to "ignore what you hear on TV." Because those who fail to maintain their payments  those who fall at least three months behind  will flash red on the little gizmo carried by The Union's "repo men," who then will conduct messy, on-the-spot surgery to remove what rightfully belongs to the corporation ... presumably so that it can be implanted in the next sucker.

And if the deadbeat happens to die during the impromptu operation, hey, it's the cost of doing business.

Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are two of The Union's best repo men, and they take giddy delight in a job that never, ever gets boring. Whether reclaiming the innards of panicked individuals or cleaning out "nests" of terrified past-dues who've banded together in an illusion of greater security, Remy and Jake have a high ol' time.

That's just fine with Jake, a cheerful psychopath whose brute instincts were refined back in childhood, when he routinely beat the snot out of any kid who annoyed him. Whitaker's performance is flat-out scary, because he's persuasively charming right up to the moment he whips out a knife and starts carving ... without ever disturbing the twinkle in his eye.

We readily believe that Jake has no trouble sleeping at night, and why should he? Society is defined by rules, and rules are subject to enforcement; therefore, he does Good Work.

Remy ... isn't so sure. His wife, Carol (Carice Van Houten, in a thankless part), is appalled by his profession, and justly so; her growing distaste prompts a marital crisis. But that's superseded by a job-related accident, when a field defibrillator misfires and gives Remy the shock of his life ... or, rather, near-death.

He wakens in a hospital, cognizant once more only because he's the proud owner of a state-of-the-art artificial heart: the best that money can buy, at a mere $975,000 ... monthly payments having been arranged while he was unconscious.

Heck, a few days in the field each month, and Remy can cover that nut easily.

Only one problem: He's lost his clinical detachment. He simply can't do it any more ... and that'll lead to an inevitable fate, once three months have elapsed.

The irony is juicy: Unlike the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz, Remy regains his humanity only after he loses his heart.

His subsequent adventures become linked with Beth (Alice Braga), a nightclub singer who catches his eye, and who proves to be resourceful in the ways of living off the grid. She, too, is a creature of contradictions: a woman far more capable of love than Remy's closed-off wife ... despite the fact that Beth is laden with artificial parts, from her knee joints to her ears and hypnotic, color-changing eyes.

The cast is rounded out by Leiv Schreiber, chillingly memorable as a smooth-talking Union supervisor who hands out assignments to his repo men (and women), and tabulates their results as bloodied organs are bagged, tagged and returned to the system.

But the film gets its emotional heft from Law's soulful, impressively complex performance and world-weary voice-overs: the latter something of a running monologue from a tortured soul who has realized that he'll never be able to atone for past transgressions. The film we watch occurs somewhere in the past belonging to Remy's off-camera self, and that poses an intriguing question as well: Where is that Remy? And what's he doing?

The problem, though  and it's a massive problem  is that director Miguel Sapochnik sabotages Law's performance at every chance, burying fine acting beneath the sort of explosively choreographed violence that has become typical of post-Michael Bay Hollywood ... but with a lot more spilled blood and eviscerated limbs. This is  once again  slaughterhouse, horror-flick violence sloshed into an otherwise thoughtful mainstream thriller, and the result is disconcerting, if not downright nauseating.

On top of which, Sapochnik can't make up his mind when it comes to tone and atmosphere. This film's serious moments  and quite serious message  also are undermined by the frequently smug and snarky tone of a director who worships at Quentin Tarantino's altar. And this savagely, darkly satirical approach isn't consistent, which puts this film's "funnier" moments at odds with the script's deadly earnest moments, as when we're reminded that such repossession work also involves 'clients' who are children.

Tone is a difficult, razor's-edge road to navigate, and it's hard to specify what makes it work ... or fail. The aforementioned Fahrenheit 451 and Blade Runner are always rigorously grave, and they should be. Brazil, on the other hand, is effective precisely because of the escalating lunacy of its premise and style.

Repo Men, sadly, is a film at war with itself: a project clearly designed to be subversive, and which therefore deserves to be taken seriously, but will be dismissed as nothing more than vile, vulgar escapist entertainment.

Corporate-controlled Hollywood product at its finest ... which is to say, its worst. And there's the final irony.

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