Imagine that, for a price, you could replace any part of your body that is failing with a part built with a quality guaranteed to exceed your natural life. It’s not that far a stretch for a science fiction film considering where we are technologically speaking nowadays. It wasn’t even that big of a stretch for a film made in 2010.
What makes Repo Men stick out though, isn’t the glimpse into the future of stainless steel hearts and 3D printed kidneys that sit on the surface. It’s the dark creamy centre filled with rusty razor blades that is the film’s scathing look at the for-profit model that healthcare providers work to, not just in the future, but here and now.
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Set in 2025, Repo Men shows us a future where these replacement parts are supplied to everyone (yes, everyone. Who wouldn’t take a life saving organ on an extortionate credit rate for a few more years on this earth?) by a company called simply “The Union”. On the sales floor, The Union is glossy, and clean and lovely looking, filled with greasy salesmen and headed up by Frank Mercer (Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan), the slimiest of them all. His “you owe it to yourself, you owe it to your family” sales speech convinces everyone to put themselves into crippling debt for spare parts. But in the dark corridors out back are the titular Repo Men. They’re the guys and girls who chase down customers late on their payments and repossess those amazing, often life saving, works of machinery directly from the bodies of those customers, leaving them in a bloody mess to fend for themselves, if they can.
Remy and Jake (Jude Law and Forest Whitaker respectively) are The Union’s best repo men. Coming up together from the army, they are best friends who have the ability to compartmentalise the horrible things they do to pay the bills as “just a job”. That is, until Remy has a lethal accident at a repo – repossessing a body part from RZA’s music producer – and is left needing one of the company’s artificial hearts. Of course, he owes it to himself and he owes it to his family, to stay in a job that he wanted out of to keep the bills paid. Or does he?
Remy decides the way forward is instead to hit the road and go on the run, skipping on his payments and holing up with Beth (Alice Braga – Predators), a singer with multiple dodgy artificial organs (ArtifOrgs), none of which are legal or paid for. But instead of running away, the pair of fugitives run towards The Union with a hair-brained scheme to remove themselves from the system and perhaps retire to a desert island somewhere.
Releasing to nothing short of complete critical hatred in 2010, Repo Men is one of those films that is completely brazen, sometimes ham-fisted, about what it’s trying to say. There’s no subtlety here; it’s a film about the human cost of companies profiteering on the heath and wellbeing of people. Arriving around the same time as former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act – an attempt to give a wider portion of the American people access to basic healthcare – Repo Men was a glimpse of what would happen in the near future if the insurance and healthcare companies that control those at the top are allowed to run wild. There’s nothing low-key or understated about the point that Game of Thrones regular director Miguel Sapochnik was trying to make with this film. But sadly, while its point was strong, the film flopped hard at the box office and no one really got to see it. It has found itself a bit of a cult following in the ten years since its release though.
Maybe it’s the hard hitting, straight from the headlines story that puts the suffering of millions up on the screen for us all to see. More likely it’s the grimy action thriller aesthetic that feels like it should be rolling around the bottom shelf at Blockbuster with all the other cheesy-but-brilliant mid-90’s sci-fi peeks at insanity like Fortress or Screamers. Hyper-gory violence that earns the film’s 18 rating possibly helped. It was as nasty as it was inventive – a blood-soaked moment that involved inserting a barcode reader into Remy and Beth is equal parts brilliant and wince-inducing in its grossness – as well as some brilliantly choreographed fight scenes. Ok, so none of them are The Raid, but there is at least one that wears its Oldboy inspiration for us all to see and kicks ass up and down the blood soaked corridor it finds itself in.
In the end, Repo Men never set the world alight with its release. But a decade later its underlying story is possibly more poignant than it was then and it still sits up there with some of the best guilty pleasure films that no one has ever heard of.