The Film: Repo Man
The Principles: Written and Directed by Alex Cox. Produced by Michael Nesmith. Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson and Dick Rude.
The Premise: White, aimless, suburban L.A. punk Otto is fired from his lousy job at the supermarket, discovers his parents have given away his college money to a televangelist, and catches his girlfriend cheating on him at a party all in the same day. He is “recruited” by a grizzled, veteran automobile repossession agent to become his apprentice. During his training process Otto is introduced to the intense world of the drivers, develops a relationship with a cute UFO conspiracy nut, is unwittingly embroiled in a war with rival repo men, discovers his friends have chosen a life of violent crime, and becomes caught up in a plot to repossess a 1964 Chevy Malibu worth a 20,000 dollar bounty to anyone who nabs it. Unfortunately an insane government scientist with a mechanical hand is also pursuing the stolen ride because the trunk contains the top secret remains of two alien corpses. It’s 4 A.M.; do you know where your car is?
Is it any good?: It’s one of my absolute favorite films of all time and possibly the quirkiest, meanest, smartest and most sardonically humorous comedies ever created. The early 80’s punk aesthetic that permeates this film, from its overall look to the amazing soundtrack featuring many local bands from the era, sets a sublime tone for the offbeat proceedings, and also serves as a perfect time capsule of imagery for the smoggy, irradiated-looking Los Angeles from the early Reagan era.
The cast is uniformly brilliant. Pre-brat packer Emilio Estevez delivers one of his first and finest performances as our nihilistic hero Otto (sounds like auto, huh?). His look, attitude and deadpan delivery is spot on. I grew up as a teen punker in the suburbs of Chicago during this time period and Estevez’s Otto has always been (to me) the poster boy for the frustrated, apathetic generation I’m a member of. Harry Dean Stanton is Bud, who develops a mentor relationship with Otto while showing him the ropes. These moments make the film feel a little like a buddy-cop flick, which is just one of many genres fighting for attention here. Sy Richardson (Straight to Hell) is Lite, a cool-yet-lethal repo man who approaches his work in a very aggressive manner, as well as providing Otto with some interesting tips on how to handle the job like a badass motherfucker. Veteran character actor Tracey Walter portrays Miller, the repo agency grounds keeper who lectures young Otto on cosmic unconsciousness, flying saucers used as time machines, and the “lattice of coincidence” concerning plates of shrimp. Walter’s trash can monologue with Estevez is nothing short of genius. I heard on the DVD that the scene was never in the original script, put placed in the film because Walter improvised the lines during his audition and Cox loved it. Rounding out the rest of the cast is the adorable Olivia Barash as Leila the UFO theorist/love interest and the irrepressible Dick Rude as Duke, the leader of Otto’s former gang. Rude kills this role and has some of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen before. My favorite line of his: “Yeah, let’s do some crimes. Let’s get sushi and not pay.”
Okay, now for the soundtrack, which is the finest collection of early eighties punk bands from Los Angeles ever assembled before. You’ve got The Plugz (who also did the awesome rockabilly-guitar instrumental score for the film), Black Flag, Fear, Suicidal Tendencies, Burning Sensations, The Circle Jerks (making a cameo as a lounge band in one scene) and Iggy Pop who provides the ear-shatteringly killer “Repo Man” theme song. I listened to the cassette tape of this soundtrack so much back in the day it actually self-destructed in my old car stereo once, which seemed completely appropriate to me.
There is a cruelty to the humor in this film that is the most darkly satirical I’ve seen with the possible exception of Dr. Strangelove. Each character represents himself or herself as a completely narcissistic, apathetic individual propelled by there own self-interest. In other words, it’s the perfect film about Los Angeles. The city and its attitude is as big a character in the film as any other. Overall, the look, tone and style have served as an influence to many filmmakers who’ve seen this movie. The glowing case in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction seems like one of the most obvious references, but I see a little Repo Man in the works of David Lynch, The Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam and Richard Kelly, to name a few.
Is it worth a look?: If you’ve never seen it before I’m really not sure what your problem is, because it’s one of the most irreverent and entertaining films ever conceived by human brains. Infinitely quotable, hilarious and insane, it’s always been a difficult one to categorize. Repo Man is definitely first and foremost a comedy, but it also contains elements of science fiction and crime all wrapped up in a punk rock package that will smash your skull in two from its awesomeness. You don’t have to be a fan of anything I mentioned above to truly enjoy this unique masterpiece of cult cinema.
Random anecdotes: Every repo man in the movie (except Otto) is named after a brand of beer.
Every car (including the police motorcycle) has a pine tree air freshener in it.
Alex Cox worked as a real repo man and the repo man code is based on the wisdom given to him by others in the business.
Zander Schloss, who plays Otto’s much-abused nerd friend Kevin, joined the punk band The Circle Jerks (that are featured in the film and on the soundtrack) after production wrapped.
Every product displayed on screen is generic. In one scene, Otto eats from a can that’s simply marked “Food”.
An original draft of the script featured a sub-plot involving a nuclear bomb that is detonated in the finale and destroys all of Los Angeles. Universal demanded the ending be changed.
A Criterion edition of this film is going to be released sometime this year!
Cinematic soul mates: Straight to Hell, Pulp Fiction, Southland Tales, Repo: The Genetic Opera, Repo Men, Repo Chick