Friday, March 26, 2010

'Repo Men' wastes promising premise

With the passing of the health care reform bill, the futuristic thriller “Repo Men” is a film that has become a film of the moment. In its own gory, action-filled way, the film makes a very valid case for health care reform.

Set in a future where health care for profit has run wild, “Repo Men” starts out as a sharply observed satire, and, like the best satire, it takes a seemingly innocent idea and plays it out to its logical extreme. If a repo man can repossess your home or your car for being overdue on payments, couldn't he also repossess prosthetic organs too? That's premise at the core of “Repo Men.”

Jude Law stars as Remy, who along with his long-time pal Jake (Forest Whitaker), works for a company that sells expensive artificial organs to costumers who can't afford them. If a costumer fails to make a payment after 90 days, Remy, Jake or one of the company's other repo men will break into their home and quite literally rip the organ out of their body.

It is grim, grisly stuff and it is presented with a cold, cynical detachment that is both darkly comic and disturbing. Liev Schreiber as Remy and Jake's boss is a perfectly slimy salesman who helps to sell the film's artificial organs as well as the satire of Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner's script.

Law has a great scene with RZA of The Wu-Tang Clan as a musician with an artificial heart that Law must repossess. Law is a fan and is asked to help RZA finish what will be his final song. There is a poignancy to the scene as RZA accepts his death as if Law is the Grim Reaper.

Things go awry with the repossession and results in Law getting his own expensive artificial heart. Not only has he lost his heart, but the stomach for his work. When he gets behind on his payments he decides to take down the whole system.
This is a turning point for the film. Everything that follows is in step with a more formulaic sci-fi action film. The film still entertains, but it feels less fresh and more familiar. The arc of Law's character is a sci-fi standard, which was most recently seen in “Minority Report.”

Using a well-worn plot is not the death of a film. It isn't the destination, but how you get there that counts. Luckily, there are just enough quirky pit stops to keep this journey interesting. One such offbeat touch involves a 9 year old performing knee surgery. It is such a gloriously unexpected moment that you wish there were more like it instead of tired scenes involving Law's wife (Carice van Houten) and his new lover (Alice Braga).

Miguel Sapochnik's direction is competent and he handles the “Matrix”-style action scenes late in the film well. There is a nice mood, but too often the film feels like a car commercial for Volkswagen.

When things go slack, you still have Law and Whitaker, both top actors, making the material work even when it is losing some strength. Their camaraderie feels authentic and you sense they are genuinely friends. When Law goes rogue, the conflict that strains their friendships adds some real dramatic tension.

"Repo Men" is a movie that is good enough entertainment. It isn't a bad time, but it is a film that started out with potential it didn't quite live up to. Certainly worth a look if you're a fan of the genre or the leads, but it won't win over non-fans.

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