In a newscast near the beginning of Repo Men, an anchor informs her viewers about an ongoing conflict in Nigeria, pausing briefly to insert the quick aside, “…that’s in Africa.” That fleeting moment says a lot about the world of the movie, a place much like ours, only slightly dumber. It’s a bit more brutal, too. The economy remains in the tank, dividing the populace into two groups: those who have nothing, and those just hanging on to what little they’ve got. Medicine, at least, has advanced to the point that most any organ can be replaced by a mechanical equivalent. But health-care reform? Forget it. If you can’t pay for the organs you’ve purchased, it’s back to the warehouse they go. And that’s where the repo men come in.
Fans of Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life will see echoes of a famous sequence in the premise, and the film—directed by first-timer Miguel Sapochnik and taken from a novel by Matchstick Men writer Eric Garcia—acknowledges the debt by playing a clip from the movie in the background of one scene. Repo Men makes the same dark joke that Python made about the way the value of human life gets lost in the need to balance the books and fill out the paperwork, but it doesn’t make that point nearly as compactly or as well. Yet for a while, Repo Men glides by on style and unrelentingly despairing humor.
Jude Law plays a repo man with a nagging wife (an underused Carice van Houten), an overenthusiastic partner (Forest Whitaker), and an unflappably cool professionalism. Law gets an infusion of empathy when an accident on the job leaves him with an artificial heart and all the bills that come with it. It’s a too-neat little metaphor—he loses his heart to gain one—and Law’s undeveloped portrayal doesn’t do much to carry it across. But the film’s economical plotting, an oily performance from Liev Schreiber as Law and Whitaker’s boss, and a brisk pace—up to the endless final act—help patch over some of the flaws.
They can’t hide the fact that it’s a film divided against itself, however. Sapochnik has made a movie about the delicate dignity of human life that revels in gleeful ultraviolence, all of it staged with much less finesse than the rest of the movie (and with one scene that owes way too much to a famous sequence in Oldboy, hammer and all). It’s a time-waster with brains, but ultimately not enough brains, and one that wastes too much time.