Here’s one of those topical dystopias, which extrapolate from current hot topics – the calling-in of callously-extended loans, America’s corporate health-care industry – to envision an America where deadbeats who can’t keep up the payments on their artificial replacement organs are liable to be ambushed by repo men who stun them and cut them open to take their defaulted-on kidneys, pancreases or hearts.
It takes a long hour, with voice-over narration, to get to the point sold by the trailers, as repo man Remy (Jude Law), himself the recipient of a heart he can’t pay for when he starts to see his marks as human beings, has to go on the run from his best friend and colleague Jake (Forest Whitaker). This future-cop-rebels scenario is achingly familiar from Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Equilibrium, Minority Report and too many others to name: and doesn’t get over the hump that the Remy we see zapping folks and ripping out their insides is such a smartarse bastard that we’re more likely to enjoy seeing him suffer than care about his regeneration into a nicer person as he hooks up with nearly all-cybernetic torch singer Beth (Alice Braga) in the industrial underground. The villains have to run to a repo man who comes on like an actual serial killer in order to make the obnoxious hero seem good – and, by the way, wouldn’t an easily-identifiable neck tattoo badge for repo men be a handicap in a profession which must often involve sneaking up on folks? Remy’s wife (a wasted Carice van Houten) is the nagging shrew who turns up in most of Philip K. Dick’s stories (but gets dropped from films like Blade Runner), and tries to get him to shift over to sales – telling sick folks ‘you owe it to your family, you owe it to yourself’ – rather than doing the cowboy job, and pissed off when Jake ditches a family BBQ to grab a kidney from someone outside her nice house.
Some have pointed out similarities with the premise, if not the plot, of Repo! The Genetic Opera, but Larry Niven, Dennis Etchison and others wrote stories about the future of organ-harvesting which date back to the ‘60s: this is based on The Repossession Mambo, a novel by Eric (Anonymous Rex) Garcia (who even worked on the script), but it doesn’t have a novel-like consistent future-world. The Union, the company for which the repo men work (fronted by corporate creepo suit Liev Schreiber), is presented as so powerful it can get away with anything for plot purposes: though the accident which means Remy has to get an artificial heart was caused by faulty equipment supplied by the Union (and, as it turns out, was deliberately managed for loopy reasons by his best friend) Remy is solely responsible for the payments (so, this is a future without compensation lawyers – which some might see as a utopia). Remy has qualms about killing folks on the job, but retains an action movie hero’s callousness when he needs to off a roomful of goons to get to the data-core for a (provisional) happy ending – this might be excused by an ending, set up by a tiny bit of significant giveaway gossip, copped completely from Brazil whereby the whole last act of the film is revoked and passed off as a VR dream, which too easily explains absurdities like the big white roomful of techies and a bit as hero and heroine grope around in each other’s open wounds to use a bar-code reader to invalidate the debts on their organs.
The world-building extends to a revival of cool torch singing in the future and the use of retro-artifacts like a manual typewriter (though there’s no moment where Remy has to puzzle out the shift-return) but is otherwise skimpy: even Surrogates, another recent entry in this sub-genre, tried harder. A neat moment has Remy jack into Beth’s augmented ears, and take advantage of her better-than-human hearing to realise the baddies are coming – but the heroine’s status as a cyborg is almost completely beside the point (she sings a nice ‘Cry Me a River’, though) and never factors into her fight scenes (after I Am Legend and Blindness, Braga is becoming as much a future hell veteran as Charlton Heston was in the ‘70s). Law doesn’t try a cod-American accent, but is supposed to have been at school with Whitaker – and the relationship between the buddies-turned-adversaries is ridiculously convoluted and unresolved, edging both leading ladies out of the film entirely. Directed with flashy, empty, second-hand energy and a lot of splat by Miguel Sapochnik.