A better review than I wrote …
Repo Man: A Lattice of Coincidence
By Sam McPheeters
Repo Man, released in early 1984, was the first feature film by a twenty- nine-year-old British UCLA film school graduate named Alex Cox. Even now, the film’s existence seems implausible. It is an apocalypse tale with no doomsday, a punk movie with no concert, a science fiction story with less than ten seconds of aliens. Most of its now classic music was on the far, far edge of American society in 1984. It mines a world of drugs, crime, and capitalist peril for absurdist yuks (when Cox showed the film to his contacts in the real world of Los Angeles auto repossession, they found it to be a diluted version of their much more terrifying jobs). The project, originally envisioned at one-tenth of its final budget, was picked up by Universal Studios. That backing launched the green director into the unfamiliar universe of teamsters and lawyers and the watchful eyes of a studio that could smoosh the project with one phone call.
How a major studio allowed such a vehemently odd movie to exist really is a mystery. Its outlandishness isn’t forced; it’s forceful. This is a film that expands a singular style of humor into an entire worldview, a physics as vast as the Force in Star Wars. But part of the mystery is also that Cox could gather so much talent in one place. Granted full autonomy in his casting, he somehow assembled a flawless ensemble. Emilio Estevez’s Otto is a pitch-perfect mix of blank ambition and obliviousness. Matching this is the world-weary exhaustion—dubbed “the Old West/cadaver look” by a friend of Cox’s—of Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud. Otto is a baby-faced punker initiated into a secretive trade by Bud, who listens to obsolete music, dresses square, and dreams small. Their worldviews collide in the new terrain of early eighties America, an era of subtle but rapid change from the Me Decade to the Greed Decade.
The casting is so impeccable that it is hard to ponder the film in any of its almost-were incarnations. Dick Rude, so brilliant as the steely-eyed ex-con Duke, was originally slated for Otto. Lance Henriksen auditioned for the role of the fictitious neutron bomb inventor J. Frank Parnell, ultimately played with leering gusto by Fox Harris. Bud was nearly portrayed by Dennis Hopper (Stanton’s own agent had, inexplicably, pushed for Mick Jagger). Most difficult to contemplate differently is the role of Otto’s hapless pal Kevin, portrayed with such geeky authenticity by the newcomer Zander Schloss; those scenes were reshot after Chris Penn tried the role as a teen- comedy goofball.
Universal treated the completed Repo Man with puzzled indifference, pulling the film from theaters after one week of underperformance in February 1984. For most movies, that would have been that. Fortunately, MCA Records had made a deal to release the soundtrack on its new, “edgy” subsidiary, San Andreas Records. Opening with Iggy Pop’s glorious theme song (with backing by the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and two members of Blondie), the album is a masterful mix of essential L.A. hardcore and the spooky Chicano- surf scoring of the Plugz. Six months after the film’s ignominious opening, its soundtrack sales topped fifty thousand. Universal reassessed its property, and the film was relaunched to critical acclaim and (modest) commercial success.
Repo Man thrived largely because of its music. The soundtrack not only resurrected the theatrical run, it also stoked interest in the video release. The film had the wonderful serendipity to enter the VHS market during the golden age of video stores. In the mideighties, “cult film” was both an aesthetic and a status facilitated by scarcity. Video connoisseurs of the pre-Internet world foraged through shelves and bins, propelled by word of mouth and employee picks. Even if you managed to catch the infamously edited television version of Repo Man (with “flip you” and “melon farmer” dubbed over saltier insults), you would have had to own a VCR to share the experience with friends. The film bloomed as a phenomenon not just because it had to be sought out but because it delivered on expectations when finally found.
Musically as well, it’s hard to think of another nondocumentary film with the preposterously marvelous timing of Repo Man—Cox had the most vibrant and diverse punk scene in America to work with. And certainly no other film used such good fortune to such novel effect. Consider the cameo by the Circle Jerks. That scene shows one of the mightiest lineups in the first wave of American hardcore—Keith Morris, Greg Hetson, Earl Liberty of Saccharine Trust, and the celebrated drummer Chuck Biscuits—in that incarnation of the band’s only recorded performance, as a drum-machine-backed lounge act. ‘
Like Billy Wilder and so many others, Cox saw Los Angeles through the eyes of a foreigner. Perhaps this perspective helped him gauge the weight of the city’s car culture. There is a boxy, sinister element to all the key autos: Bud’s Chevy Impala, Otto’s heisted AMC Matador, the Chevy Malibu that really did get stolen during filming. Actors auditioned in cars. The film’s only glamorous ride, the Rodriguez brothers’ 1964 Ford Falcon convertible, felt the wrath of Stanton’s baseball bat— during an on-set argument over his right to wield a real baseball bat in place of a prop one. And as a car film, Repo Man faithfully captures the terrors of its era. InGrease—a movie with a similar magic-chariot finale— the paved L.A. River is a private racetrack for gleaming hot rods. Here, it’s Bud’s doomsday escape route.
The original drafts of the Repo Man screenplay actually did end with atomic annihilation. Even with the sunnier conclusion that the film wound up with, it still fits snugly in the roster of politicized 1980s American sci-fi. Most science fiction made under Reagan—from the low-budgetThe Brother from Another Planet to Escape from New York, Robocop, They Live (a Cox favorite), and even the blockbuster bluster of The Terminator—couldn’t avoid engaging with political issues, providing the same kind of canvas for social commentary once offered by westerns. Nuclear apocalypse loomed, and Reaganomics turned downtowns into dystopian Bantustans; reality was rapidly catching up with fantasy. In this context, some of Cox’s gags have a deeper meaning. Repo Man’s streets aren’t just stages for comedic weirdness; they’re also part Calcutta, zones where a dead body can be left on a bench or a sidewalk without repercussion.
Some of the film’s oddness is borrowed. The smoldering boots of the patrolman were lifted from executive producer and ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith’s previous production, Timerider (1982). Cox’s student film Edge City (1980) first used the wonderful background burble of radio and television commentary. The Pik ’n Pay generic foods scattered throughout, Repo Man’s most enduring and original gag, were real, having been donated by Ralphs supermarket (only three generic products—“Food,” “Drink,” and “Butyl Nitrate”—had to be made as props). And Cox pays homage to the hissing “great whatsit” of 1955’s apocalyptic noir Kiss Me Deadly with his own glowing trunk MacGuffin.
Repo Man would be a hard debut for any director to outshine. It’s a film with nearly zero body fat, in a league with Star Wars or the Monty Python movies in its abundance of quotable lines. Its countless little extras—Miller’s shaman dance, the clucking agents, the ubiquitous (and sponsored) air fresheners—reward repeat viewings.
It’s been nearly three decades now, and I’m still waiting for the world to produce another Repo Man. Its legacy and influence are so diffuse and varied that they register as background noise, leaving it to stand not just as a great work of cinema but as a challenge. Why can’t more films be like this?