There are so many ideas coursing through this sci-fi/action/black comedy/thriller it's hard to know when it succeeds and when it stumbles. The story follows two dystopian repo men, who collect artificial body parts from people who aren't up to date on their payments. That is to say, they track down the carrier and surgically remove the mechanical organ (anything from proshetic limbs to imitation hearts), leaving the poor sucker bleeding on the ground. And all with a grin on their faces. There is good chemistry between the two leads, Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, and together they bring a crunchy dark humour to a very grisly profession. The comedic slant is mostly present during the first half of the film, and it saves the picture from being to staunch and depressing out of the gates. The inspiration for its Fahrenheit 451-esque twist on the repo man profession, is clearly the current state of American health care and pharmaceuticals. In the beginning of the film, the repossessed body parts seem to be necessary synthetic replacements – the victims are simply too afford poor them. They require the artificial aids to live or at least live comfortably. As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that 'The Union' (the creepy corporation which has a monopoly on the mechanical organ business), pushes and sells its products similar to the way pharmaceutical companies push drugs today. Due to a leap in technology, The Union can easily create an improved, no, a perfect version of every body part except the brain. As a result, people are spiralling into debt to become bigger (well, probably smaller), faster and stronger than they would naturally. What is a very simple idea becomes a sweeping indictment on not just health care, but many scary modern trends including reckless spending, aesthetic-obsessed celebrity culture, corporate monopolies, the empowerment of advertisers and general apathy. Whew. And how does the film mine all these ideas? With a minority-report riffing extended chase sequence, where Jude Law becomes hunted by his former employer for an artificial heart he can't afford. In other words, it does very little with a very fascinating dystopian world. At the same time, I'm only disappointed in retrospect. The action-oriented second half is polished, thrilling and engaging in it's own way. Even the ending, which despite employing a cheap narrative trick for a 'it was all a dream' style conclusion, actually works.
Repo Men is similar to sci-fi actioners like Robocop or Starship Troopers, films that have political motivations but would rather blow stuff up than pontificate on social ills. It probably has the most in common with District 9 which is similarly afflicted with bi-polar disorder, beginning with soaring rhetoric and ending like a transformers film. It's surprising then that while Disctrict 9 received across-the board beaming reviews (a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes), Repo Men is universally scorned (21%!). Based on those figures I feel like this will sound like heresy, but I think Repo Men is the marginally better film. The ideas it unpacks are conveyed with more brutality and precision than in District 9 (which is, contrary to popular belief, not about Apartheid but on modern South Africa (re: Sporgey's review)) and it has more fun doing so. There are no fuzzy pixar moments between CGI creatures either. But I digress. Both are great examples of a sci-fi renaissance of the last few years (others being Moon, 2012, Star Trek and Cloverfield) and would make a terrific double bill.
For a film that has more swagger and points of interest in it's soon-to-be repossessed pinky finger than say Avatar, yet the critics have relegated Repo Men to the bargain bin - which is a shame. Even if you hate it, it can fill a conversation or two. My vote for Hollywood underdog film of the year.