Not My Department
When I was young, I slept with a battery on my tongue
So when I spit, the impact with the sting of a stun gun
At full blast, rock your cradle, fatal razorblades graze you,
Split you open, stitch you back wit a staple.
—RZA, “Booby Trap”
“You just gotta know how to break it down.” Seated before a soundboard, T-Bone (RZA) is explaining how to make a song, His guest, Remy (Jude Law), is visibly moved by the process, “thrilled” to be invited to sit down and adjust a fader. He leans his head back, eyes closed as he moves to the beat, his pale face lit to indicate his appreciation.
Remy’s moment of zen is brief, as he’s got a job to do. He’s here to kill T-Bone. Specifically, he means to repo the heart in T-Bone’s chest, the one for which the man has missed his payments. Remy works for the Union, a commercial firm that makes artificial organs. A former Special Ops soldier, he’s efficient, cold-blooded, and deeply amoral, telling himself that what he does is just a job. And, he says repeatedly, “A job’s a job.”
In another movie, not Repo Men, Remy’s encounter with T-Bone might give him pause: the prospect of destroying such a brilliant creative spirit for a reason so crass as money might reveal to him his own flawed thinking. T-Bone is black, mystical, and wise, after all. He knows the mystery of chessboxin’. But in Repo Men, Remy’s revelation is loud and spectacular, his transformation grindingly literal. A few minutes after he meets T-Bone, he is himself broken down by an accidental defibrillator zap. And when he wakes up, in a hospital bed with tubes in his chest, he’s horrified.
In this state, his face gaunt and eye sockets shadowed, Remy resembles what you might imagine of Schrödinger’s cat, the subject of a science experiment locked in a box and poisoned, but yet unseen by the scientist (Erwin Schrödinger), and so, not known to be alive or dead. Remy tells this story at the start of the movie, concluding that if either state is possible, if the cat can be alive or dead equally, then “both are possible too.” While his fascination with the story suggests that Remy has his own inclination to chessboxin’, even before he meets T-Bone, it also sets up the film’s pretense to philosophy. Remy, from the beginning, is not a wholly bad cat. He’s just confused, caught between worlds and ways of thinking, taking perverse pleasure in visceral grisliness but almost capable of comprehending the existential costs of his job.
This potential in Remy is fully realized once he has his own Jarvik heart and can’t make his payments. Now he’s not just a worker for proficient salesman Frank (Liev Schrieber) (who tells his clients, “You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your family,” a line boldfaced by a close-up of Frank’s cruel smile as the dying man signs away his life, as well as his family’s savings). And he’s no longer similar to his fellow army buddy and repo man Jake (Forest Whitaker), who seems actually to like his job, cutting flesh to get to livers or lungs or some other “forgs,” hearing whimpers for mercy and moans of pain.
Remy, by contrast, is pictured slicing into groveling, unattractive clients (“I’m from the Union,” he announces to one man about to get a blowjob from a short-skirted girl in a very expensive apartment. “You fuck!” protests the man, feebly enraged) or smiling with his cherubic son Peter (Chandler Canterbury), never exactly loving the meanness. Yes, his job troubles his wife Carol (Carice an Houten, stuck in a part that mainly has her pouting), but she’s rendered here as a nag and then, when he makes a very wrong choice, an unforgiving nag who throws him out just when he needs her most.
Lucky for Remy, he no sooner loses his wife than he finds Beth (Alice Braga), a lounge singer and recipient of multiple forgs: not only is she sexy and Brazilian, she’s also sympathetic to his situation and not averse to gruesome violence, obviously his ideal girl. Together they scheme to take down the system that means to repo their body parts, launching into a series of actionated mayhem scenes, extravagantly gory, in the mode of Shoot ‘Em Up or Wanted.
You have so been here already. The havoc is certainly stylized, the bloody excess motivated by close-encounter weaponry (scalpels, machetes, hacksaws), the faux martial-artsy moves CGI-enhanced, and a bizarre, sort-of urgent set of mini-surgeries on a barely conscious (but still sexy!) Beth resulting in something like multiple climaxes (in a word: eww). But the movie’s topical concerns, with, say, corporatized health care (drawn from the source novel, Eric Garcia’s Repossession Mambo) are here less political than superficially trendy.
And even if you take the obvious political point at face value, the film’s narrative delivery is backwards and odious. The cat in this box is yet another white boy malcontent, secretly sensitive and philosophically inclined, who gleans enlightenment from his multicultural associates. If he’s not another One, exactly, he’s left to think he is.