Making sense of bad movies that come from good books.
Released with vastly different amounts of fanfare in 2009 and 2010 but experiencing similar box office failures, Whiteout and Repo Men nevertheless both come from various forms of print media. Whiteout was adapted from an Oni Press graphic novel written by frequent Batman creator Greg Rucka. Repo Men was adapted from Eric Garcia’s 2009 novel The Repossession Mambo. Neither film can be considered especially good, except possibly within the broader criteria of their genres, though they’re both at times entertaining.
Oddly, despite vast differences in setting, subject matter, and mood, in many ways the same failures and shortcomings undermine both, and those shortcomings cast a dreary comment on so much of what’s wrong with modern American mainstream cinema. In short, they’re different films with the same problems, and the problems are tediously, balefully typical.
Of the two, Whiteout is the better film, and then in many ways only barely. Too formulaic where it could be innovative and leaden in pace and momentum where it ought to run, it’s nevertheless just competent enough at manipulating its B-movie tropes to remain entertaining for much of its 101-minute runtime. Despite its exotic setting and innovative take on the traditional closed-door mystery, director Dominic Sena (Kalifornia) allows too much of the plot to dissolve into routine slasher-flick motions, skipping over plot and character development in favor of action that seldom looks realistic and almost never captivates.
U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale, starving herself into an approximation of Victoria Beckham) is the sole law enforcement officer at a scientific research station at the South Pole. Two days before the station shuts down for the long Antarctic winter – and Stetko makes her first departure from its grounds – she’s obliged to investigate a dead body spotted on the ice sheets. Journeying out to the crime scene with neophyte pilot Delfy (Columbus Short), with help from the station’s doctor (Tom Skerrit) she learns the man was killed by an axe and belonged to a research team searching for meteorites.
The team, it seems, had also discovered the wreckage of a Soviet plane downed more than fifty years before (the demise of the Russian plane and its crew is shown in violent detail during the film’s prologue), and that its cargo hold still contains a mysterious, if potentially priceless, treasure. Stetko and Delfy follow the scientists’ trail to an abandoned Russian base, then team with a UN investigator (Gabriel Macht) to pursue the killer.
Too much of the film’s middle act involves Stetko running from an axe-wielding, masked stalker, whether through blinding snow drifts (that give the film its name) or within the decrepit or sanitary confines of the research bases. Beckinsale is up to the physical demands – even if much of the film is obviously created on a soundstage – and manages to make the wounded, haunted Stetko sympathetic without stumping for the audience’s pity. Of any modern comics writer (and by extension, comics writers ever) Rucka shows the most acuity and intelligence in writing convincingly tough, feminine protagonists, and there’s some rough echo of that dexterity at work in her performance.
It’s everything around her that feels rote, from the eventually duplicitous mentor figure to the gore of the prologue’s firefight to the red herrings represented by Macht and Short’s otherwise trustworthy male presences. Short and Macht, two very good character actors, aren’t given much to do except wander around on the occasionally fake-looking ice and look worried beneath their parkas. Skerrit is charming, and effortless (though it’s depressing to remember he was in M*A*S*H – how Hollywood sometimes treats is veterans) and his concluding scene offers one of the film’s few genuine surprises.
Ultimately, though, Whiteout is a slasher film in exotic clothing, nowhere near as smart as it could be and not as innovative as it ought to become. It’s one of the oldest gripes in the world that Hollywood dumbs down good books, a complaint so common it’s become cliché; in this case, the cliché is lamentably true.
The horror and action film cliches are on dreary parade in Repo Men, a gore-soaked misfire that squanders its intriguing premise while exploring virtually none of its potential. Combined with his other leading roles, and contrasted with his appealing supporting work in 2009′s Sherlock Holmes, the film also suggests that as a leading man Jude Law fares better as a character actor.
At an indeterminate time in the near future, synthetic organs have become commonplace, replacing and in some cases outpacing the real thing. Installation of these “artiforgs,” and the financing to obtain them, are provided by an oligarchical finance corporation called The Union. But once recipients fall more than 90 days behind on their payments (and they’re expensive – the film explains a pancreas costs upwards of $600,000), the Union assigns “repo men” to retrieve the machines. These repossessions often cost the recipients their lives, to the utter nonchalance of the repo men.
Built on such an intriguing concept rests a plot of routine structure and drama: ace repo man Remy (Law) has a crisis of conscience after receiving an artificial heart following a botched repossession. Since his new-found empathy prevents him from snatching away others’ artiforgs, he falls behind on his payments and must evade his supervisor (Liev Shreiber) and ex-partner and war buddy Jake (Forest Whitaker.) Retreating into the city’s underbelly (the same postwar urban jungle you’ve seen many times before), he teams with a drug addict (Alice Braga) whose body is a virtual artiforg catalog to evade the Union’s operatives and attack its central payment processing system.
Director Miguel Sapochnik is a former storyboard artist, and the film takes delight in staging crisply rendered glimpses of its future-scape: a towering apartment tower, a metropolis at night, the sleek contours of a giant office building. Taken frame by frame, the film sometimes amazes visually but cannot bind those images into a smooth-running narrative. The plot stalls as Remy goes through too many story threads: a romance, a crumbling marriage, his love for his son, his friendship with Jake, his animosity towards the Union. The story’s most interesting aspect – a wry commentary on the barn fire that is our modern health care system – gets lost in the shuffle as a result.
That’s partly the fault of the script (co-written by Garcia even while he wrote the novel), of course, but the ensuing lack of momentum makes the issue worse. Every moment spent exploring them all distracts and deflates the relative simplicities of the artiforg concept and the Logan’s Run riff plot structure. The actors involved aren’t bad – though the women, including Alice Braga as Remy’s love and Carice van Houten as his harridan wife – are too often two-dimensional and bland. Whitaker is good, as always, all sleepy eyed rage and deliberate cunning; Shreiber, having participated in a Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, could probably play this part standing on his hands. Law gives his best effort, but lacks the intensity and edge the part often seems to need. He often seems in danger of finding himself outshined by the twin forces of his two co-stars (probably most actors would.)
The film comes apart nearly completely in its last half hour, when too much splatter gore and an awkward sleight-of-hand ending jumble together in a bottleneck of half-realized scenes; Sapochnik manages, however, to make the gore lovely in its own brutal and gratuitous way, which in all fairness deserves recognition as an accomplishment all by itself. If that sort of thing appeals to you, you might be willing to overlook the other problems all along the way.
- Michael Kabel