"It's Just a Kidney"
In a mildly futuristic semi-dystopia, we've got bigger skyscrapers, better drugs, electric cars, and much fancier artificial organs. It's Blade Runner-light. The organs cost as much as a house, but if you're going to die of pancreatic cancer, a second mortgage is worth it to hang on to living. Of course if you fall behind on payments, the company can legally repossess the property that you've defaulted on, be it eyes, liver or heart. And by "repossess," we do mean that they send repo men to tase you, cut you, and rip out the organ on the spot. There's a legal requirement that the repossessor offer to call an ambulance, but it's mostly a formality since you can't be fitted with a replacement organ since your credit is ruined. It's got major issues as a sustainable business plan, almost as unbelievable as giving thousands of people mortgages that no rational financial institution would believe they could pay back. But it is science fiction, so we do have to suspend some disbelief.
Jude Law and Forest Whitaker play Remy and Jake, repo men who have been friends who beat the crap out of each other since the fourth grade. Jake loves his work and Remy doesn't mind it other than the fact that his wife finds it morally repugnant and wants him to quit. Liev Schrieber plays their boss with a fine sheen of used car salesman. As the trailer already revealed, the major plot movement comes from Remy ending up with an artificial heart, and a sudden case of conscience that leaves him unable to do his job or pay the bills for his new ticker. Get it? He has a change of heart?
The film's humor is very dark and very situational, emerging from a gallows absurdity rather than clever retorts or witty rejoinders. At one point in the middle of a barbeque, Jake sneaks out to repo an organ. In the backseat of a cab. With a kitchen knife. While wearing his chef's apron. Remy's son sees and snaps pictures on his phone. In his defense, Jake holds up the bloody piece of machinery and protests "it was only a kidney!" Even more darkly: a billboard in the background advertises The Fast and the Furious X.
Whitaker and Law really bring their characters to life, inhabiting them with actual texture. Whitaker's Jake butchers people for a living, but still has drinks with his buddies, complains about the people from whom he repossesses and is absolutely broken hearted when Remy can't do his job anymore. He's psycho, but he is so devastated by losing his best friend, that you just want to hug the poor guy. He even has a beautiful screed of why rules and enforcement matter, the kind of logic that has you nodding your head up until the conclusion of "and that's why I need to tase you and cut your lungs out without anesthesia." Both Jake and Remy are abominable human beings, but they're evil in exactly the way that people are in the real world: banal thugs just doing their job.
The film works in the end because in addition to the humor, character and bits of old ultra-violence, it doesn't collapse under its own weight in the last half hour. It takes its time establishing that these are not good guys at the beginning and then sticks to its guns and doesn't let them off the hook with unearned redemption in the end.
Look, the film is definitely derivative of other better done dystopian science fiction. While it pushes some buttons about health care and home repossession that certainly resonate, the plot itself is fairly straightforward. But it's entertaining as hell.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.