"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, April 13, 2012

Repo Man

Repo Man (1984) was part of a fascinating trend during the 1980s of foreign filmmakers seeing America through the eyes of an outsider and making films that identified with marginalized figures hanging out on the fringes of society. Some of these directors included German director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas), Czech Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way), the Franco-Swiss filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (Barfly), and Liverpool, England-born Alex Cox. Teaming up with legendary Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller, Cox offered a fresh perspective on Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis that has been the setting for countless films and television shows, by picking locations that hadn’t been seen all that often – “dirty, dingy locations in East L.A. and downtown” with all sorts of abandoning buildings and vacant lots, as the Los Angeles Times observed, naming the film one of the best set in the city in the last 25 years.

Repo Man came out at the height of the Reagan era and was notable for how it proved to be a sharp contrast to the prevailing trend of rampant commercialism with its generic branding of food and drinks and a protagonist that openly rejected material items and a traditional job in search of something else. The film follows the misadventures of a white suburban punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who we meet stacking cans of food in a supermarket while co-worker Kevin (Zander Schloss, who’s look and demeanor anticipated Napoleon Dynamite by two decades) sings the jingle for 7-UP to pass the time. For Otto this is the last straw and he quits his job after being confronted by his boss for not properly spacing the cans. He’d much rather party with his punk rock buddies until he catches his best friend Duke (Dick Rude) having sex with a girl he was just about to get with himself before going to get her a beer. Not only rejecting his crappy job but also his punk rock friends, Otto ends up wandering the streets aimlessly until he meets Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a veteran repossessor of cars, and who unwittingly gets the young man to help repossess his first car.

It’s Otto’s first introduction into a subculture he never thought about before and once he realizes what Bud is, rejects his offer to be a repo man. Otto soon finds out how true the old adage is that you can’t go home again when his perpetually stoned ex-hippie parents have given all of his European trip money to buy a place on Reverend Larry's Chariot's of Fire Honor Role to send Bibles to El Salvador. Otto starts working for Bud who takes the young man under his wing and shows him the ropes, telling him how to dress and how things work. Most importantly he tells Otto the Repo Code. The young man takes to the job instantly, getting off on the excitement of not just dealing with angry car owners but also the run-ins with other highly competitive repo men like the Rodriguez brothers – Napoleon (Eddie Velez) and Lagarto (Del Zamora). In some respects, the repossessing racket infuses a lot of the punk rock attitude as Bud famously tells Otto, “An ordinary person spends their life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”

"Not many people got a code to live by anymore," says Bud to Otto early on in Repo Man. This film is all about personal codes and philosophies. It seems that everyone has their own take on life, from Bud's Repo Code ("I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm.") to Lite (Sy Richardson), another repo man, who has his own code of conduct – he won’t ride with anybody unless they wear a seatbelt. However, Repo Man’s core belief, if you can call it that, comes from pseudo-guru/mechanic Miller's (Tracey Walter) Lattice of Coincidence philosophy. He views life as "a bunch of unconnected incidences," with a "lattice of coincidence that lays atop of everything." This is the structure that Cox imposes on Repo Man, creating several seemingly random events and characters that only occasionally interact with one another, but eventually all are linked together at the film's end.

Cox uses the initial scenes in the film as a springboard to introduce a variety of unusual characters and situations that contribute to the satirical commentary on everything from television evangelists to hippies to punk rock. Initially, he presents these situations as meaningless, random events: a Chevy Malibu driven by a lobotomized scientist with four dead aliens in the trunk that fry anyone who dares open it; three old friends from Otto’s punk days that rob various variety stores for kicks (“Let’s get sushi and not pay!”); a UFO cult dedicated to finding the dead aliens and exposing them to the world on Johnny Carson; and the FBI who is also in pursuit of the Chevy Malibu. Cox has all of these characters, and many more interact with one another throughout the film, keeping Otto and Bud as the focal point, illustrating that what seems like random, arbitrary events are really all connected. Lattice of coincidence indeed.

Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton are excellent as the student and teacher, playing well off each other with the former learning the ropes, and the latter doling out words of wisdom. Liberated from Brat Pack fare that he has been most closely identified with, Estevez is quite good as Otto, a directionless young man trying to find a purpose and thinks he’ll find it initially with the repo men but thanks to Miller discovers a higher purpose. Legendary character actor Stanton is in top form as veteran repo man Bud. His weather-beaten features and the laconic way he smokes a cigarette help convey Bud’s world-weariness. After seeing him in countless films as a supporting actor it’s great to see him in a substantial role. Repo Man only reinforced his considerable range as he plays a cranky guy who’s seen it all and has an opinion to go with it. This is in sharp contrast to his nearly mute and extremely vulnerable loner in Paris, Texas (1984).

The supporting cast is also excellent. Sy Richardson is one of the stand-out repo men, playing a cool guy with a badass attitude and a habit of self-mythologizing – he’s the John Shaft of the repossessing set. In one of the film’s reoccurring gags, he introduces Otto to a book that changed his life – a thinly-veiled jab at Dianetics entitled, Dioretix: The Science of Matter Over Mind by X. Rum-Bubba. Tracey Walter as space case Miller is also superb. In most films, Walter has been relegated to nothing roles, but here Cox gives him room to do his thing and he uses the time wisely presenting Miller as maybe the most intelligent guy in the film, or the most insane as he expounds his strange theories ("The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.") to anyone who will listen. He’s given an opportunity to deliver a fascinatingly wonky monologue about how UFOs are really time machines that comes across as a pisstake on New Age hokum but is ultimately embraced by Otto and proven true at the end of the film. According to Walter, this now famous speech was not in the script. Cox wrote it with no intention of using it but the actor told him, “Alex, you can’t be serious about not using that!”

Repo Man is chock full of hilarious bits pitch black humor, like when a highway patrolman asks a government agent what happened to his comrade who was vaporized in the film’s opening minutes to which she deadpans, “It happens sometimes, people just explode. Natural causes.” There are also all kinds recurring and throwaway gags, like the car with the dead aliens passing by the government truck pursuing it but the FBI agents fail to notice because they have engine trouble. Bud and Otto repeatedly and narrowly miss meeting the latter’s punk pals who have become inept criminals. There ‘s also punk rock band the Circle Jerks who make an appearance in the film as a cheesy lounge band (“I can’t believe I used to like these guys,” Otto says with disdain). One also has to pay attention to background dialogue to get a few funny gems, like the scene where Otto enters a hospital and over the intercom Dr. Benway is being paged for surgery. Benway was one of the main characters in William S. Burroughs’ surreal novel, Naked Lunch.

From the get-go, Cox also establishes a refreshingly uncompromising, bare bones approach and tone to the whole film that, unlike other supposedly anti-establishment films (Heathers and Pump Up The Volume), never lets up. This tone is established with a great punk rock soundtrack with the likes of Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks contributing songs and almost documentary-like photography from Robby Muller. Best of all, Cox isn't afraid to cast a critical eye on anyone, even poking fun at the film's own punk aesthetic in a scene where Otto's friend, Duke dies from a gunshot wound and leaves this touching soliloquy, "I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate. And yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am." It's the old juvenile delinquent/punk cop out which Cox exposes so well as Otto replies, "That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk, just like me." Repo Man is unforgivingly anti-materialistic, anti-commercialism, anti-consumerism, and anti-establishment – a welcome relief from the cultural wasteland that was the mid-1980s.

After graduating from the UCLA film studies department, Alex Cox met British film director Adrian Lyne who, at the time, had only directed Foxes (1980). He told Cox that his next film was going to be about the impending threat of nuclear war. Cox scouted locations in Seattle and Vancouver for Lyne while also writing a screenplay entitled, The Happy Hour. Lyne never made the film and Cox subsequently ran into two friends from UCLA – Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy. They had formed a production company and each had made a film and were now making commercials and public service announcements.

Cox suggested that they produce feature films and that he should direct one of them. Wacks and McCarthy agreed and told him to write a script. So, he wrote The Hot Club, which he described as “a comedy about nuclear blast veterans and nerve gas thieves set in the early years of the 21st century.” It was budgeted but ultimately deemed too expensive and so Cox went off and wrote Repo Man based on his experiences living in L.A., working as a car repossessor and inspired by punk rock music and underground comic books that came out of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s by the likes of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. To entice potential investors, Cox drew four pages of a comic book based on his script with the notion of expanding it into an entire comic book but found it to be too much work and abandoned the idea.

Michael Nesmith, one of The Monkees and now a movie producer, read the script/comic book pages, liked it and showed it to then-head of Universal Studios Bob Rehme. Amazingly, he green-lighted Repo Man, offering Cox a $1.5 million budget on the condition that the film be delivered on time and resemble the original script. Repo Man was shot on location in L.A. over six weeks from late July to August 1983. The crew were asked to work for free for the final three days when the production went over budget and over schedule. For the most part the production was able to fly under the radar as the studio was focusing most of its attention on the big budget production of Streets of Fire (1984). Unfortunately, just as principal photography was being completed, Rehme was fired and the new studio head proceeded to marginalize anything his predecessor had been attached to, including Repo Man and Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983).

Repo Man had its world premiere at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival. When the film made its North American debut, it only played major cities. In frustration, Cox and his producers took out an ad in Variety reprinting the good review they gave it as “a challenge” to Universal to give their film a proper theatrical release. Fortunately, an executive at the studio by the name of Kelly Neal championed Repo Man, prolonging its theatrical life somewhat. The film’s soundtrack, composed almost entirely of West Coast punk rock bands, became quite popular with fans of the music and through word of mouth Cox’s film began to develop a cult following.

Repo Man received positive reviews from mainstream critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “What's best about Repo Man is its sly sense of humor. There are a lot of running gags in the movie, and the best of them involves generic food labels, of all things.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Repo Man frequently seems to be as zonked as Mr. Stanton's cocaine-sniffing Bud. It's not a big- budget, Ghostbusters of a movie, but it's very entertaining, and though it's rude in an R-rated way, it has the good taste never to promise more than it can deliver.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott called it, “a non-stop, shoestring trip with more adventures and a helluva lot more smarts than you'll find in most American movies. The ride in Repo Man may be bumpy and there may be a few wrong turns and a few false starts, but the scenery is always, well, scenic and, despite their nihilism, the travelling companions are enlivening and weirdly affirmative.” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael wrote, “The movie gives you the feeling that you’ve gone past alienation into the land of detachment … A movie like this, with nothing positive in it, can make you feel good.” In his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “Cox gives the denizens of Edge City wacky ways of expressing themselves whether they're principals, passers-by or disembodied voices.” Most memorably, notable author Harlan Ellison reviewed the film and wrote, “Unless you are one of those dismal unfortunates who thinks Jerry Lewis is funny, you are guaranteed a filmic experience that can only be compared, in terms of a good time, with watching Richard Nixon sweat on television.”

Repo Man is a clever social satire that attacks consumer culture on a small scale. Many of the characters have brand names like Miller, Bud, and Lite, while all the products in the film are labeled "Beer" and "Food." Cox twists the whole idea of consumerism on its ear, commenting on how we have all become commodities of one form or another to be bought and sold. On one level, the film is a bizarre comedy with memorable dialogue (hence its cult film status) and a killer soundtrack (the title song performed by Iggy Pop no less), but look a little harder and you will find much more going on under the surface. Many obscure films are often labeled a "cult film," but this one deserves the label with its eclectic cast, a take-no-prisoners attitude towards social commentary and an unconventional plot structure.

NOTE: The bulk of the production info was taken from Alex Cox's official site and from the liner notes of the special edition DVD tin by Anchor Bay.


  1. A most exciting resurrection here J.D. of a film that has oddly been neglected, even while being considered by some critics and cineastes as one of the greatest 'cult' films ever. It's been years since I saw it, and I'm not even sure if I'm holding a DVD copy of it, though I once owned a tape. I remember that score by Iggy Pop and others, and the smart minimalism and terrific performances by Stanton and Estevez. Director Cox of course is also remembered for SID AND NANCY, and the film is very much a part of the L.A. milieu.

    Outstanding essay!

  2. I can't believe I've let this one slip by me for so long...it seems tailor made for my tastes and sense of humor! The way you've described this film makes me want to check it out right away, I love social satire, specially when its mordant and acid and angry! This sounds like its a film made out of anger at the system and how things where in the world during the 80's and I love films of that nature. Reminds me a bit of Falling Down by the way you describe it.

  3. Great retrospective on one of truly alternative 'L.A.' film around, J.D. Well done, my friend. This one is chocked full of great scenes and lines of dialog. As Sam said, "... one of the greatest 'cult' films ever."

  4. Repo Man is great. It shows that Estevez can be good in the right role and of course Harry Dean Stanton is terrific. I love the way it sets up and follows its own rules but avoids predictability. I enjoyed your comparisons to the other "outsider films" of the period. I'd never considered that but it makes a lot of sense.

  5. Sam Juliano:

    Thanks for stopping by, Sam! I am a big fan of Cox films up to and including WALKER and then I started to lose interest. To be fair, I haven't seen HIGHWAY PATROLMAN, which he did soon afterwards and it is finally available on DVD so I'm curious to see that one. But REPO MAN is definitely the quintessential cult film!

    The Film Connoisseur:

    You really need to see this film! You'll love it, my friend. Without a doubt. It is angry social satire at its finest.


    Thank you for the kind words. Yeah, REPO MAN is definitely one of my fave films and one that has aged very well. It still packs an uncompromising punch.

    Brent Allard:

    Totally agree with you on Estevez in this film. He also plays well off of Stanton in a career-defining performance. As you so rightly point out, it bucks convention, which is certainly a large part of its appeal. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Saw this one the other day after reading your review...gotta say, it sure is unconventional in every way possible, I liked that about it. And it certainly was an angry film! And a totally bonkers film, I mean, it takes a while to get into the flow of it, but I loved it, totally crazy and unpredictable! I need to watch it again in order to really absorb the whole thing, but I dug it lots, thanks for the review!

  7. Francisco Gonzalez:

    Glad you saw this and enjoyed it. I figured you would. Isn't such a batcrap crazy film? Amazing that even got made and pushed through the Hollywood system as you watch it and realize that this is instant cult film material. There is certainly a lot to absorb and repeated viewings are definitely in order.

  8. True it's the kind of film that makes you wonder how it slipped by hollywood, but as I found out by reading your review, Hollywood was more preocupied with another expensive production that was underway, so they left the director and his production to his own devices, I'm of the mind that if this was done more often, we might actually get more interesting films than the ones we get.

  9. Francisco Gonzalez:

    I agree! It would be nice to see more films of this subversive nature. I think that's what makes films like FIGHT CLUB so special - a studio film not afraid to bite the hand that feeds it. But I think that's the key... to fly under the radar, usually with a small enough budget so that the studio doesn't care enough to interfere.