Review of Repo Men (2010)

Moving picture, 111 minutes

Seen in 2021.

A company selling artificial organs also pays repo men to hunt down clients overdue on their payments, usually killing these clients in the process of reclaiming the merchandise.

The high-concept premise is played as a dark action comedy. The titular repo men are primarily legalized assassins, though on account of some implied legal technicality and intended MPAA rating they use tasers rather than lethal weapons before removing vital organs. They generally work alone and are apparently not trained as surgeons, nor do they need to be, as the artificial organs seem to be made primarily of metal and plastic; the props are poor. There is driveway kidney surgery at a barbecue party, there is surgery as a sexual act, and at one point a nine-year-old extracts an improbably large linear actuator from somebody’s knee.

The premise should be interpreted partly as a satire on capitalism, not as sincere extrapolation. The motif of repossession is an allusion to the contemporary US financial crisis, while the medical context points to the debate over the Affordable Care Act and the malfeasance of corporate finance specialists like Martin Shkreli, also rife in 2010. That gives the movie some life. Unfortunately, the action-comedy tone damages the symbolism. The two most central characters are working class but “level five”, effectively superheroes, able to kill half a dozen armed airport security guards. This has nothing to do with satire. Thankfully, there is an explanation for it: Both men are veterans of long-running US wars like Afghanistan, though they crewed a tank; they weren’t special forces.

Despite his prowess, when the main character inevitably develops a conscience for strictly selfish reasons after having broken into dozens of homes and killed hundreds of people, the police do not come looking for him. Questions about how the industry is regulated are not answered. More importantly, the artificial organs never brown out or black out, which would be cheaper, more humane and less of a PR risk than hiring killers. There is no acknowledgment that selling organs to people who can afford to pay for them would be more profitable than mass murder, and as in the more extreme Altered Carbon (2002), there is no real cultural shift in people’s attitudes toward death. It is a plot hole that, in the absence of a cultural shift, even large groups of people on the run from repo men fail to arm themselves, and that there is simultaneously no sign of public protest against the grotesque practice. In other words, this is poor science fiction, a run-of-the-mill self-contradictory dystopia.

Liev Schreiber is fun as the evil local manager of the corporation, confusingly called only Union. I wonder what the union calls itself at Union. RZA has a good bit part. The stupid sexualized surgery scene is set to Moloko’s 1998 hit “Sing It Back” because that is the era where the writers got their concept of the future. The structure of the script is harshly formulaic, with Remy’s role reversal starting punctually at the half-hour mark and consummated at the half-way mark. The opening monologue alludes to Schrödinger’s cat but fails to suggest, in any way at all, that this is just a thought experiment or that it describes the quantum level rather than macroscopic everyday life. Luckily there is kitsch value in this tasteless execution.

References here: The Zero Theorem (2013).

moving picture fiction cyberpunk