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149. REPO MAN (1984)

“Exec-produced by an ex-Monkee (Michael Nesmith) and directed by a onetime Oxford law student, ‘Repo Man’ was destined for weirdness.”–”Entertainment Weekly” in their 2003 list naming Repo Man one of the top 10 cult films of all time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Cox

FEATURING: Emilio Estevez, , Sy Richardson, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Zander Schloss, Fox Harris

PLOT: A scientist drives a Chevy Malibu through the desert with a mysterious cargo in his trunk that vaporizes people who try to look at it. Meanwhile, in southern California, young punk Otto, desperate for money, takes a job repossessing unpaid vehicles as a “repo man.” The two plotlines collide when the repo men discover a $20,000 bounty on the car, and the race is on between Otto and his pals, government agents, and rival repo men to repossess the vehicle, along with whatever resides in its trunk.

Still from Repo Man (1984)

BACKGROUND:

  • Thinking it might make for an interesting story, writer/director Alex Cox rode with a repo man before conceiving this script.
  • Former Monkee Michael Nesmith was executive producer of the film.
  • Both Harry Dean Stanton and Alex Cox have both reported that they squabbled with each other through the film; in one incident, Stanton insisted on using a real baseball bat rather than a prop and almost struck a fellow actor. Some fans have speculated that some of Stanton’s scenes were rewritten and given to Sy Richardson due to this tension.
  • In the originally planned ending, Los Angeles was vaporized in a mushroom cloud; executives at Universal Pictures vetoed the idea. Another proposed ending had Otto becoming a revolutionary in Latin America.
  • Initially, Repo Man was shown in theaters for only a week, but when its punk soundtrack sold tens of thousands of copies the studio reconsidered and decided to give it a slightly expanded release. Still, far more fans came to the film via home video than caught it on the big screen.
  • The version of the film shown on television included several scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical release. (This “TV cut” is included as an extra on the Criterion Collection release).
  • Cox wrote a script for a sequel to Repo Man that was never produced; in 2008 it was adapted into a graphic novel titled “Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday.”
  • Over Universal’s objections (they owned sequel rights), in 2009 Cox made a poorly-received, low budget green-screen “spiritual sequel” to Repo Man called Repo Chick.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Repo Man is a film that’s better known for its dialogue than its imagery, but we’ll go with the vision of someone vaporizing when he opens the Chevy Malibu trunk, leaving behind a smoldering pair of boots (this scene happens more than once in the film). It’s one of Repo Man‘s few forays into cheesy special effects, but like every other seemingly inconsistent stylistic element of the movie, it feels right for this material, fitting into this consistently erratic and bizarre nightmare version of L.A.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Repo Man‘s weirdness is subtle, but unmistakable to the connoisseur. Consider the question: what genre is this movie? Is it sci-fi, social satire, a punk testament, or just a smart B-movie goof? And what to make of the movie’s interest in UFOs, conspiracies and fringe theories, the “lattice of coincidence” and Miller’s observation that “you know the way everybody’s into weirdness right now…. Bermuda triangles, UFOs, how the Mayans invented television?” If weirdness can be defined as that which reminds you of no other, than Repo Man is genuinely weird—and genuinely great.


Original trailer for Repo Man

COMMENTS: It may be hard for young folks to believe, but there was a time when Emilio Estevez was more than just Charlie Sheen’s mortified sibling. He was briefly cool, entirely because of his role as the title character in Repo Man. (Estevez would soon squander his hip cred by joining the “Brat Pack” for squarefests like The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire and Young Guns before his acting career faded away). Still, Estevez will always be remembered for his role as the everyman antihero and neophyte car repossesseor ironically named Otto. On the cusp of adulthood, straddling the worlds of responsibility and irresponsibility, Otto is both a sympathetic and an unsympathetic character. We feel for him because he is rejected by both his TV-evangelist-addicted parents and his putative punk girlfriend, who cruelly cheats on him with the guy he assumes was his best friend. On the other hand, he can be extraordinarily callous, abusing his nerdy admirer Kevin and awkwardly fumbling for sex with a real girlfriend once he gets her. Even his appearance is mixed: he wears an earring, a slightly outre accoutrement for a 1984 male, but otherwise he’s a surprisingly clean-cut and presentable young man, who looks good in a tie.

Otto’s redemptive quality, the reason we as the audience put up with him as our hero, is his brutal honesty. A Holden Caulfield for the Eighties, there’s barely an ounce of phoniness in him. When, in a parody of a Hollywood death speech, his ex-pal tries to blame “society” for his life of crime, Otto’s response is a simple “you’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” As he lies dying, Otto comforts him with “you’re going to be all right,” but his honesty seeps through as the punk bleeds out: “maybe not.” This cynicism, combined with a nihilistic “party hard today, for tomorrow we may die” ethos was one of the defining themes of the early punk movement. In the decade since the end of the hippies, the counterculture still looked down on the establishment as corrupt commercialist warmongers; the difference was, they weren’t willing to entertain the illusion that they could overthrow the system with a bunch of flowers and some rainbows and dancing bears. The idealism of the new counterculture was its pride in its lack of idealism, in its adherents’ ability to see through the illusory pep talks to the diseased heart of society. Repo Man dwells in the dark shadows of Reagan’s America, in an “Edge City” that’s an ugly, burnt-out, garbage-strewn husk of a SoCal suburb crawling with hustlers, deadbeats and crazies. Punk anger seeps through the blackly comic tone in what has to be the best soundtrack of its type, featuring such stalwarts as , Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and classics like “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies and “Pablo Picasso” by Burning Sensations, along with a Spanish-language cover of “Secret Agent Man” by the Plugz. You don’t have to be a fan of the genre to recognize how perfectly these ruthless, bitter-but-witty tunes propel the movie’s happy-go-lucky, hard-driving aesthetic.

Punks aren’t the only subculture depicted in the movie, however, as Cox’s anthropology unearths an even more exotic brand of misfit: the repo man. As depicted (mythologized?) in this script, repo men are almost like adult punks, but with more authenticity. There isn’t an ounce of poser in them; they define themselves by what they actually do. Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the most archetypal of the bunch, even lives by a code: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm.” Other than that, however, anything goes, like living on a diet of beer and cocaine, taking joyrides in the LA river, or going after rival repo men with a baseball bat. Hostile to all ideologies equally, Bud refuses to let Communists, or Christians, ride in his car. Otto’s other mentor, Lite, is just as cool, but even more blasé (check out the way he blatantly disregards Bud’s rule about protecting personal property, and the ironic result). It’s easy to see why the life of a repo man seduces Otto. He’s far too hot-blooded to work as a stockboy, but not cold-blooded enough for a life of crime like his trio of hardcore friends. Repossessing offers a compromise, a third way between being a destitute dropout and joining up with the Man. It’s respectable employment (Otto brags about it to girls), it’s got adventure, it condones partying all night (“there ain’t a repo man I know that don’t take speed,” Bud advises), and it gives him a license to legally steal cars. He can be a productive member of society and an outlaw at the same time. The two subcultures mesh surprisingly well; in fact, Otto’s discovery of the repo man lifestyle is like a revelation that punkery isn’t limited to his own generation. There have always been rebels, working under different names.

Repo Man succeeds because it captures and merges these complimentary subcultures so well, but it’s a great movie because of its density. It’s full of subtle jokes and monologues that demand a second viewing. In a monologue Michael Nesmith calls “the heartbeat of the movie,” mystical Miller, the oddball philosopher-fool who cleans the repo yard, stresses the “cosmic unconsciousness” and the “lattice of coincidence” that hangs over the world, illustrating those point with the bizarre example of a plate o’ shrimp. (Keep an eye out for plates or shrimp or plates of shrimp in the movie). One of the film’s running jokes is that almost all of the consumer products in Repo Man‘s world are generic, including butyl nitrate; it’s a gag that gets funnier as instances accumulate. For no obvious reason, all of the repo men are named after beers. UFO enthusiast Leila works at the “United Fruitcake Outlet.” Some jokes need some background info to appreciate: the lounge act of whom Otto says “I can’t believe I used to like these guys” is, in fact, the Circle Jerks (whose name can also be seen graffitied on the side of a warehouse). Besides iconic monologues from Bud and Miller, Repo Man also contains a wealth of great quotable lines: “let’s go get sushi and not pay,” “Hermanos Rodriguez do not approve of drugs,” and my personal favorite, “John Wayne was a…” (Well, I don’t want to spoil the joke if you haven’t seen the movie yet).

If the mishmash of genres and subcultures combined with aggressively oddball comedy isn’t enough to make you to fall in love with the movie, there are plenty of weird accent points to get your attention. The mystery in the trunk of the Chevy Malibu that drives the plot adds a bit of atom age mysticism to the story that dovetails with Miller’s “you know the way everybody’s into weirdness right now…” speech. The sci-fi ramifications take Repo Man out of the realm of pure social satire and into a crazier, more dangerous place. The Malibu is driven by a sweaty lunatic doctor with one sunglass lens left; he’s been driven mad by his own cargo. He’s being hunted by a government agent with an aluminum hand who blithely explains that sometimes “people just explode—natural causes.” The paranormal infiltrates this world in a subliminal way. A radio PSA warns, “Do not let strange creatures into your house! We all know strange creatures are on the increase.” Otto reads a Weekly World News headline blaring “ALIENS WILL LAND SOON!’ (He will later deny reading such trash). At one point Otto walks through skid row and sees a pair of men in hazmat suits loading a dead body into a van. All these themes of mad science, aliens and the supernatural create a background radiation of anxiety that’s relieved by bursts of absurd humor. The ending sails off into la-la land. Heck, the film is so upside down, the end credits scroll backwards. Overall, Repo Man is a crazy conglomeration of themes, gags and oddball plot points, but it’s one of those movies where everything magically comes together. Casting is pitch perfect, the dialogue sizzles, and the music seized the zeitgeist, chewed it up and spit it out. With the exception of Stanton, most of the people involved in this project were just starting out at the beginning of their careers. Most (certainly director Cox and star Estevez) would never be this good again. The movie argues for a lattice of coincidence, and it’s only coincidence that could bring together so many disparate elements and meld them into such a bizarrely, almost accidentally successful movie.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This low-budget fantasy gives you the feeling that you’ve gone past alienation into the land of detachment—a punkers’ wasteland where you never know where you are, and nobody cares to make things work, and everybody you see is part of the lunatic fringe… the whole comic atmosphere of druggy burnout gets to you, and Cox never slips—he never lets things get sentimentalized or organized.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“‘Repo Man’ is one of those movies that slips through the cracks and gives us all a little weirdo fun… This is the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn’t made from any known formula and doesn’t follow the rules.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

Repo Man‘s effective opening half hour – which details Bud and Otto’s tentative yet respectful mentor/protege relationship – is eventually replaced by an aura of blatant weirdness, a situation that’s exacerbated by Cox’s relentlessly off-kilter directorial style… the bottom line is that the movie, more often than not, just comes off as strange for strangeness’ sake.”–David Nusair, Reel Film Reviews (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Repo Man (1984)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Repo Man (1984) – The Criterion Collection – Includes a “3 Reasons” clip, a clip of Iggy Pop discussing the soundtrack, the Sam McPheeters essay, and miscellaneous other features

Alex Cox – REPO MAN – The Repo Man page on director Alex Cox’s official site contains his reflections about the movie

Repo Man: Criterion release and interview with director Alex Cox – A video interview with Alex Cox regarding the Criterion release, conducted by Jay Shaw, the artist who designed the packaging

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About REPO MAN – This fan page maintained by artist Bob Cantor has a wealth of links and an informative FAQ

Repo Man Film – Another fan site with more links and a large collection of memorabilia

Stars Come Out for Repo Man Screening at New Beverly Cinema – A report on the Q&A with actors Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash and Del Zamora (Lagarto Rodriguez) at a 2010 screening of the film

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection’s 2013 director-approved release fits on two DVDs (buy) or one Blu-ray (buy). The meatiest extra is the “clean” TV cut of the film, compiled by Cox, which overdubs the profanity with euphemisms (“melon baller!”) while deleting some scenes and adding others. It also includes a (recycled) commentary track by Cox, executive producer Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, and Del Zamora.  Supplements appearing on previous releases include “Repossessed,” a roundtable discussion with Cox and the producers; an interview of Harry Dean Stanton (who comes off as quite the mystic oddball) conducted by producer Peter McCarthy; and deleted scenes and trailers. There are new interviews with Iggy Pop, Keith Morris (of the band the Circle Jerks) and actors Dick Rude, Olivia Barash, and Miguel Sandoval, along with a Criterion booklet with essays by Sam McPheeters and an interview with the real-life repo man on whom Cox modeled Bud.

A cheaper option to own Repo Man is the 2006 Focus Features release (buy) which contains most of the same special features as the Criterion release, including the commentary, the McCarthy/Stanton interview, the deleted scenes (which are integrated into interviews with stars from the film and a surprise guest, real-life neutron bomb designer Sam Cohen), and the”Repossessed” roundtable.

The movie is also available (extras free) on Video-on-Demand (rent on-demand).

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who argued, “this film is a bonafide cult classic and it takes awhile, but once you make it to the end you realize how weird [it] is.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 comments to 149. REPO MAN (1984)

  • Otto Black

    Surely no review of this film is complete without a mention of the huge shout to the pretty-darn-weird “Kiss Me, Deadly” (1955)? In case you don’t know, everyone in that film, including the US government, is after “the great whatsis”, a mysterious metal box which incinerates the person who opens it much more graphically than anything that happens in “Repo Man” before causing a (very small) atomic explosion which only destroys one house, but presumably showers LA with radioactive fallout (and in one cut of the movie, apparently kills the hero and his girlfriend).

    By the way, completists who find it odd that Otto (no relation) is the only repo man not named after beer might appreciate this:

    http://www.camrgb.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Otto.jpg

  • Dean

    Eric deserves an award just for having to point this film out to you. Surely it would have been one of the first, if not _the_ first, you would have come across? ;) I have Repo Man on Blu-ray Disc now, and it still brings back memories of my childhood and adolescence. I was in that group that were just starting school around the time people like Otto were turning eighteen, you see. I think this film like few others really captures what the youth of the 1980s and 1990s were going through. In this day and age where we are up to number three or four of groups of eighteen year olds being told “happy adulthood, now accept a lower standard of living than your parents” by mainstream society, Repo Man can be seen in the same light as RoboCop or Black Sabbath. Not a tragedy because it is forgotten or irrelevant, but a tragedy because it has become _more_ relevant.

    People seeing Repo Man for the first time might also get a kick out of Sy Richardson and Emilio Estevez acting together in Men At Work. It is nowhere near as weird, but let us just say that if you mixed all of the repo men in this film together and stirred, they would still be less out to lunch than Sy’s character in MAW.

  • Otto: I hope my reviewers’ card won’t be revoked for forgetting to mention Kiss Me Deadly!

    Dean: Eric Gabbard does deserve an award for his early support of this site, but he didn’t introduce me personally to Repo Man. It came out when I was 16 and like most folks I saw it a year or two later, on VHS. When I thought of the concept of this site, Repo Man was one of the movies I knew would make the List. It’s maybe not as weird as some, but it’s too much of a cult classic to leave off!

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