First off, Repo Men — despite its name — is not a long overdue follow-up to the cult favorite Repo Man from 1984. What the current thriller shares with Repo Man is, well, a similar title. The earlier movie celebrates edgy characters, memorable language and a comic sensibility that still play fresh. It retains a loyal following and sits prominently on the list of great offbeat films the past quarter century. That’s a pretty high bar, considering what you normally find in the cineplex, but hardly impossible to get over. That’s our Smack. Does Repo Men stand on its own merits, or is it just reflecting the glow of another film’s originality, hoping to cash in? And, what exactly are these new guys so hot to re-possess?
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Remy (Jude Law) is good at his job – a natural – and he likes the money, but not the hours that keep him away from his family. Remy and boyhood friend Jake (Forest Whitaker) reclaim expensive artificial body parts from clients who fall behind their monthly payments. It’s gruesome work you see in detail and these repo men perform it with a sociopathic detachment. Everything changes for Remy when a booby-rigged defibrillator nearly kills him; he awakens from a coma with no desire to resume his work and with one of his employer’s expensive artificial hearts installed in his chest. This lands Remy on the company’s repo list, and he joins others who are literally running for their lives. The chase ends unexpectedly, and Mama Cass sings “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Miguel Sapochnik directed a script Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner adapted from Garcia’s novel “The Repossession Mambo.”
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The Defending Champion
Director Alex Cox had something else in mind for Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) in Repo Man. Otto’s a punk just bounced from his job in a grocery store when he meets veteran repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton in a standout role). They become partners and what a contrast: Otto is a blank slate, Bud is garrulous, usually high and he lives by a nervous code: “Repo man’s got all night… every night.” They are surrounded by a collection of social misfits and CIA operatives searching for a 1964 Chevy Malibu with dead space aliens in the trunk. Along the way a co-worker, Miller, connects the dots linking ancient Mayans, flying saucers and time travel. Normal everyday stuff.
Both movies have real pluses, but there’s a feeling of deja view in watching Repo Men. Early sections have the look and feel of Blade Runner. There’s even a fight staged in a lavatory between Remy and Jake that seems like a direct lift from the Blade Runner showdown between Deckard and Batty. Didn’t I also see Jude Law juggle similar character elements in Artificial Intelligence? I know I saw body carving on the various CSI programs and Nip/Tuck. This time it is performed in back alleys and abandoned buildings with the subtlety of a hammer to the skull. This “One from Column A, One from Column B” approach works better on a restaurant menu. The violence, though, is carefully arranged, more so than the story. Whitaker and his very smarmy boss (Liev Schreiber) are the best parts of this smorgasbord. I can’t recall a single memorable line.
I can’t say that about Repo Man. Nearly everyone says something funny or compelling:
Miller: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”
Duke: “Let’s go get sushi… and not pay!”
Leila & Otto: “What about our relationship? F**k that!”
Not profound, but funny and compelling. Sprinkle that into a defiantly goofball story and the resulting entertainment also captures a sense of the times during which it was made. It also marks how much we’ve changed. The great character actor Miguel Sandoval is the balding middle-aged District Attorney on the CBS program Medium. In Repo Man Sandoval is barely recognizable as Archie, the punk in a mohawk. And that’s alright. This movie is a continuing pleasure thanks to winning performances by Estevez, Walter (who earned a Saturn award) and Harry Dean Stanton.
In this case the better movie has all the advantages.
An easy call. Early reviews describe Repo Men as a commentary on the state of health care in the USA. That’s a reach and besides, Paddy Chayevsky handled that notion much better and won an Oscar in 1972 for writing The Hospital. What Repo Men does well involves very bloody violence and movie elements someone else did earlier.
By contrast, Repo Man is an original well-done. It is funny, while Repo Men is not. It still feels current. Repo Man is still worth your time after 26 years. The other film has the distinction of being confused with our winner, Repo Man.
If you want a real sequel, you may be in for a wait. Alex Cox produced Repo Chick and screened it at the Venice Film Festival awhile back. A squabble with Universal has this movie in limbo.