1984, pumpkins. One of those watershed years that comes along every so often. We didn't get the telescreens and the Thought Police and the Ministry of Love . . . that would come later on. On the other hand J.G. Ballard did write "Empire of the Sun", Tom Clancy wrote "The Hunt for Red October", Frederick Forsyth wrote "The Fourth Protocol", William Gibson wrote "Neuromancer" and Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Alexy Pajitnov created Tetris, Alan Moore took over "Swamp Thing" and "My Little Pony" began syndication on television.
This is . . . well it's a movie to be sure. But it's less of a Super Panavision 70 extravaganza and more of a cross between an dialogue in existentialism and a deer caught in the headlights. It is as perfect an example of a cult film as one might wish without having to sit through "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (and if you've misplaced your copy of "Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension", which was also released in 1984). As with the best cult films, "Repo Man" didn't make endless scads of money at the box office but it was well-received by critics and it produced an entire world for the cognoscenti to wrap themselves in. I personally call it one of the best science-fiction films ever made even though at times it seems to fly in the face of all logic.
But here's where you need to take a step or two back. We're talking about flying in the face of American science-fiction film logic which (and we must face it) is technically skewed eighteen times from Sunday dinner as it is. If we're going to sit in a movie theater and try to blindly accept the idea of alien robot automatons being able to transform themselves into showroom cars, then why would it make far less sense to accept the notion of dead radioactive extraterrestrials being carted around in the trunk of a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu? In the total context of the genre it all makes the most perfect sense in the world.
At least it did to Alex Cox who not only directed the film, but wrote it as well. A British-born director, Cox was also known for the 1986 biopic "Sid and Nancy" (a film which shared several qualities with "Repo Man", not the least of which was a killer soundtrack). His studio feature film career was short-circuited, however, by the commercial failure of his 1987 film "Walker" (which I seemed to like better than the critics, but nothing new in that) and he has, since then, been concentrating on more independent projects (documentaries and such). As I personally tend to applaud independent filmmakers I can only state that the cinema world overall has doubtless been better for it.
Back to "Repo Man". The story takes place in and around Los Angeles. Otto (Emilio Estevez) is a disillusioned 80's punk (come to think of it, was there any other sort of 80's punk? I mean Wendy O. Williams looked sort of cheerful on occasion) who, as with so many of his generation, is seeking the American Dream: lots of money for as little work as possible. Among other things, "Repo Man" is as excellent a slice of the 1980's punk attitude and lifestyle as any outsider could wish.
And here I want to quickly step in and mention the setting of the film. "Repo Man" is filmed in the dregs and wasteland sections of L.A. All it needed was a few Ford Falcon XB GT Coupes and we could've had a "Mad Max" film here. But the visuals aren't just skin deep. In a particularly clever move all the consumer products in the stores are in generically bland packaging. Seeing these items makes one feel as if the Body Snatchers have already taken over. No need for advertising . . . or worse. The world of "Repo Man" is the world of the proles which Orwell wrote about; the lower rungs on the social ladder who are undeserving of superior name brand items.
(In an episode of the cult television series "The Prisoner", Leo McKern comments on how his wish is to see the hive-like Village extended throughout the world. The consumer goods in the Village were generically labeled as well. In "Repo Man" we see McKern's wish made flesh, and the Village encompassing the lives and minds of the world.)
Back to the story. Otto falls in with the members of an automobile repossession agency and, drawn by the easy cash, drugs and "intensity" of the business, becomes a "repo man". Under the tutelage of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), Otto prowls the fringe areas within the fringe he was already inhabiting.
At the same time a secret government agency is offering a $20,000 reward for the recovery of a '64 Chevrolet Malibu. This automatically (Ottomatically?) catches the attention of every repossession agency in the area, including not only Otto and Bud but their main rivals: the Rodriguez Brothers (Del Zamora and Eddie Velez). The hunt for the Malibu also brings out other elements, such as an underground group devoted to revealing the truth about extraterrestrials (one of whose members enters into a relationship with Otto) and, of course, the aforementioned secret government agency (either blonde men in business suits, or faceless people wearing protective gear, and all of them led by Susan Barnes: dressed like a CNN reporter gone bad and also sporting a black pinwheel hat and silver Michael Jackson glove). Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the Malibu is weaving ever closer to Los Angeles, being driven by J. Frank Parnell: a scientist whose mind is gradually disintegrating (but not nearly as quickly as what happens to whoever tries to get a look in the car's trunk).
In "Repo Man" the story is only secondary to what's being tossed onto the screen. The search for the Malibu (and its lethal cargo) is just a means to get us to pay attention to the Bigger Unwritten Story. Society within the "Repo Man" world is fragmenting before our very eyes. Early on Otto abandons his family when it becomes clear they've equally tuned him out. The forces of Order are either impotent (e.g. the government agents, the totally ineffective rent-a-cop at the repossession agency) or are being quickly disintegrated (a highway patrolman who tries to look into the trunk is immediately vaporized). The only endearments one hears with even the slightest ingredient of Sincerity is from one punk (Dick Rude) to another (Jennifer Balgobin) as he shyly expresses his desire to start a family (all of this taking place during the committing of a crime). Courtesy only rises at the point of a gun, and the only virtue remaining is Attitude.
In fact Attitude pretty much describes what's taking place in "Repo Man" as opposed to Acting. Characters in the film do not interact or speak to one another as much as they enter into a pose and deliver an opinion. There is an awful lot of talking but no listening. The beauty of it is that this behavior is universal throughout the film, so it quickly becomes natural. Perhaps the closest one comes to genuine dialogue in the film is in something of a surprisingly gentle scene where Otto is listening to a discussion of synchronicity delivered by Miller (played by Tracey Walter, who many of you might remember as Bob the Goon from Burton's "Batman". His work in "Repo Man" would earn him a Best Supporting Actor Saturn Award). Of all the volatile and easily reactive characters in the film, Miller is perhaps the sole anchor. Small wonder that, at the film's climax, he becomes the one Otto turns to.
The attitude, vocal and otherwise, is also what gives "Repo Man" its attractive element of bizarre fun. As a for instance: the government agents are obviously trying their best to be unobtrusive throughout their work while, at the same time, their protective suits (and their habit of flame-throwing victims) make them stand out like sore thumbs.
("It happens sometimes," Susan Barnes' character informs an official as she tries to nonchalantly pass off the disintegration of someone who peeked in the Malibu's trunk. "People just explode. Natural causes".)
A variety of subplots are tossed like wood chips into a current, and eventually they manage to merge together. Through it all Estevez's Otto tries to jump the hurdles of weirdness which continually get thrown in his path, sometimes coping only by the skin of his teeth, his eyes growing wider and his grip on reality slipping until, at the end, it makes perfect sense to abandon the shallow relationship he had with the girl he'd met earlier . . . in fact throw away the entire pose-heavy shell which life has become . . . and embrace the weirdness which Miller had described. Initially drawn to the life of a repossession agent because of the "intensity", Otto ultimately reaches out for the biggest intensity he can find.
I had mentioned how "Repo Man" is a good representation of 80's punk culture. The music in the film strolls hand in hand by providing an excellent cross-section of 80's punk. Viewers will hear several songs by The Circle Jerks, The Plugz (including a tasty cover of the theme to "Secret Agent Man"), Black Flag, Burning Sensations . . . all the way to Iggy Pop's hands-down utter shmoozy theme song to the movie (almost an argument in itself towards shaving one's head). "Repo Man" is drenched in utter hipness to the point where, almost thirty years later, it still stands up pretty good under the lights (a quality I attribute not only to Cox, but to a crack team of producers which include Michael Nesmith . . . a good Texas boy . . . in the Executive role). Practically reveling in its cult status, "Repo Man" will doubtless last much longer in the role of a piece of maverick filmmaking than other films which have devoted more effort to finding a life within the mainstream.
Watching it will put you in the mood for shrimp. Happens to me every time.