Like the old joke goes – stop me if you’ve heard this one before: in the not too distant future, science will perfect the artificial biological replacement. Organs, limbs…even memories can be uploaded, refashioned, and in many cases, reinterpreted for the client’s needs. Of course, none of this comes cheap. Massive corporate conglomerates itching to make a buck off the bad luck of its suffering consumers will set up full service clinics, including mandatory installment plan financing – a mortgage for your medical needs, so to speak – in order to prolong your miserable life. If you pay in full, the new part is yours. Failure to make your monthly payment, however, brings the Repo Men to your door. Armed with surgical tools and some amount of meatball skill, they take back what is no longer rightfully yours, ending your existence while maintaining the social order – that is, until the repossessor inadvertently becomes the repossessed.
If the proposed storyline rings a bell, that’s because we have had at least two competing versions of this future shock idea in the last three years. The first – and for many, the best – remains Darren Lynn Bousman’s labor of love Repo: The Genetic Opera. Starting life as a stage play, then a short film, this surreal song and dance experience – yes, it is indeed a musical – uses the medical menace described above to discuss familial dysfunction, social disenfranchisement, surgical obsessions, and slasher horror film conventions. Relegated to a contractually mandated ‘minor’ theatrical release, the man who made Saw a more than viable franchise found his baby abandoned, only to be picked up by an originality-starved viewing public. Now a certified cult hit, home video has turned the title into one of the more recognizably successful cinematic experiments.
Then there is Repo Men, and it’s equally complicated history. Based on a novel from 2008 (several years after The Genetic Opera was part of the underground pop culture landscape) and following a surprisingly similar storyline, screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner collaborated with director Miguel Sapochnik on what would eventually become the 2010 Universal title (now on DVD and Blu-ray). Immediately, red flags went up around the Genetic community. Questions of plagiarism were raised. Even though the trio claimed conception around 2003, Bousman argued his origins as far back as 1996. Worse still, he had pitched his take on Repo to the same studio, who resoundingly rejected it as “non commercial.” Coincidence argues that, in a world filled with limited ideas, two competing entities can draft dauntingly similar sagas out of the notion of transplants and the repossession of same. But this is Hollywood, where very little is left to chance.
It’s a shame the similarities don’t stop there. Even in the new unrated version which adds back in edited material (some gore, some narrative scope), Repo Men feels like a reflection of something more original. It plays like an amalgamation of better films, from the obvious Oldboy riff to the undeniable aura of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil gone muddled…and mainstream. As a director, Sapochnik gives away his references time and time again. Quick, there’s a glimpse of Blade Runner. Whoa, check out the nod to A Clockwork Orange. Instead of forging his own shape of things to come, he cherry picks apart the genre, condensing decades of speculation into his superficial look at a world gone wonky. We expect social commentary from a concept like this, a direct link to our current medical crisis in the outrageous idea of $600K artificial livers. But Sapochnik misses the point time and time again, even when the script sets up a possibility for satire.
At least his actors are up to the job, if just barely. Jude Law, who should be a bigger star by now, seems the be slumming as the working class repo grunt whose indebted to everyone but himself. The attempts to make him a regular Joe, including a weird moments as a solid soul music fan, fall flat if only because the British thesp always comes across as more clipped than cool. Still, he sells the premise, his predicament within it, and even the last act change of heart (both literal and figurative). By his side is the grand goofballsiness of Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. As an ex-war buddy and comrade in carving, the hulking actor wins us over with his occasional gosh-darn dopiness. With a decent Liev Schreiber as the perfunctory bureaucratic villain and Alice Braga as a pointless love interest, the movie makes the most of its limited cinematic assets. Even the special effects seem slight, from the blood drenched body invasions to vast, inviolable cityscapes.
But the biggest problem facing Repo is a tired sense of “been there, seen that”. Bousman’s effort, with its corpse strew wastelands and televised vivisection is more daring, more audacious than anything Garcia, Lerner, and Sapochnik have to offer. Even the sick sexual slice and dice of Repo Men‘s ending is thwarted by an obvious bow to Sam Lowry and the Ministry of Information Retrieval. No, The Genetic Opera, with its Grand Guignol Godfather ambitions and soaring musical accompaniment blankets this average actioner with a patina of derivativeness that it can never shake. Even when the narrative moves us away from the parallel plotpoint arena, we keep waiting to be wowed. Such a feeling of anticipations met never enters into Repo Men‘s realization.
Even the digital package disappoints. The Blu-ray of Repo Men gives Garcia, Lerner and Sapochnik a chance to defend themselves, and they spend the vast majority of the commentary track patting each other on the back. They are so brilliant, so beyond reproach that Bousman et. al. barely warrant a mention. They have an explanation for everything – from the songs chosen for the soundtracks to the in-jokes peppered throughout. Even though the Unrated version is updated with new material, there are still a few more deleted scenes to dig through, a collection of commercials for the fictional Union Corporation, and a peek at the special effects. It’s all so EPK, so prepackaged by marketers and consultants that it never moves beyond the basics.
They’re a lot like the movie they supplement. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge one film based on the brilliance of another. But when the competition is between Repo: The Genetic Opera and Repo Men, the contest is over before the first round even begins. Darren Lynn Bousman may have had trouble getting his film into theaters, but the results were well worth the effort. For Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner and Miguel Sapochnik, the path to a commercial release was apparently a lot less stressful. Too bad the final film couldn’t match its accidental inspiration’s majesty. While not bad, Repo Men is just bland.