Retro-View: Repo Man (1984)


I hated REPO MAN when I first saw it in the summer of 1984. The film was barely released in a few theaters by Universal, and if you look at the long winded synopsis on the poster, you can see they must have been stymied as to how to sell this true original. I especially love that “Meet Otto. He’s a clean cut kid in a dirty business.” Except Otto was a punk, or at least the USA version of it. 1984 was probably maximum_rocknrollthe height of the American punk movement, and tho I loved reading MAXIMUMROCKNROLL zine because it represented the sympathetic politics of the genre, I was never a hardcore fan of the sound. I always thought the music was so chaotic and violent that whatever proto-revolutionary goals were had were lost in the sonic — and stage — violence. Along with the “genuine” punks, there were the poseurs, like the downtown skinheads I knew, racist suburban assholes no better than Southern cross-burnin’ shitkickers. I empathized with those protesting nuclear proliferation, anti-funding “Freedom Fighters” and other causes in the era’s struggle against Ronald Reagan’s Falwell Just Do It Gordon Gekko America, a period when our cultural heroes became bullying forces with big guns.

This was a time when the President of the United States actually quoted Dirty Harry in policy speeches and the hit films were jingoistic paens to re-winning ‘Nam via the struggle against Russia The Evil Empire, such as in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2; TOP GUN; RED DAWN; MISSING IN ACTION; etc. I found it tough to be a young freethinker in the 80’s when my peers were applauding Rambo wiping out an army of Vietnamese soldiers with a crossbow and dynamite. The xenophobia of the period was palatable, and even ALIENS had an aura of jingoism I found disturbing. But there was a lot of fantastic art that sprung from the neon decade, in film, literature and especially music. At the time, I was as confused and idealistic as anybody, my philosophical influences being The Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Harlan Ellison, Ayn Rand, Ray Bradbury, Tom Wolfe, Ian Fleming, Duran Duran, and Rush Limbaugh (long story). In other stolen words, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

repoman71impalaFortunately, writer/director Alex Cox, who hailed from England, had a better idea of the disparate punk and political zeitgeist than just about anybody else in Hollywood. His European outside gaze gave him more objective insight on the US culture; thus his screenplay REPO MAN was born, naturally focusing on America’s true love: the automobile. The story details the misadventures of Otto, the aforementioned punk, as he joins the sleazy elite ranks of the Repo Men on the fringes of the off-kilter, desolate “Edge City” aka downtown Los Angeles. Otto ends up joining the wild and violent chase for a 1964 Chevy Malibu driven by J. Frank Parnell, the “creator of the Neutron Bomb” who may or may not have radioactive aliens in his glowing trunk. Intended to be shot for around 70 grand, it took two years before visionary music video mogul Michael Nesmith read the first scene of the script and agreed to produce REPO MAN for one million dollars. Nesmith then got Universal Pictures onboard for distribution. Another reason to love The Monkees.

This is pitch-perfect satire. From the generic labels of FOOD and BEER to the prescient jabs at the mind science of “Dioretix: The Science of Matter over Mind” to the carefully placed smiley faces and odor trees in every car, REPO MAN was one of the handful of 1980’s films to accurately take the cultural temperature of the Reagan era and diagnose it as terminal — Cox just happens to be using a rectal thermometer. A perfect example of his ability to flip sentiment and character is when Otto’s once-pal, Duke, lay shot and dying in a convienence store and tells him, “I blame society.” Otto replies, “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk like me.” Duke’s last line is, “But it still hurts…” as he dies in gargling pain. If REPO MAN had come out in the late 80’s/early 90’s indie boom, Cox would have been put up there with Quentin Tarantino for his dialogue. In fact, this very post-modern film has a few similarities to Tarantino’s pop universe. Miller’s “John Wayne was a fag,” speech is profane and hilarious, uber-brave at a time when the president seemed to believe he was a movie cowboy (so it goes). I really admire this screenplay and I use it as an example for myself and others to study the character and construction, along with the brilliant subversive wit.

repo-manCox has a garage load of awesome actors on hand to fuel the madness. Emilio Estevez makes for a perfect apathetic suburban punk, whether he’s slam dancing or bullshitting his stoned parents for cash. It’s still his best work. Like I said, he’s so effective I disliked the movie — at first. Of course, Harry Dean Stanton steals the show as Bud, the meth-head boozing Repo Man mentor. “Ordinary people, I fucking hate ’em” he says before snorting a rail. Fox Harris also immortalized himself as the lobotomized, radioactive Parnell.  Oddball character actor Tracey Walter gets his greatest role here as Miller, his unique deadpan style a perfect fit for the mystic mechanic. Apropos, he delivers the film’s thematic speech (what Nesmith calls the “heartbeat of the movie”) in a quiet scene where he tells Otto about the Lattice of Coincidence that guides the universe. There are many other memorable character bits from the large diverse cast, from the punk gang licking the scientist’s steel hand to the Rodriguez Brothers drinking their sodas in resignation after losing the Malibu.

In fact, this must be one of the most quoted films in cinema history. People will still be saying, “Let’s go get sushi and not pay” well into the 22nd century — if we get there. Amazingly, Sam Cohen, the actual creator of the neutron bomb, called Alex Cox to tell him his two favorite films were DR. STRANGELOVE and REPO MAN! The pair can be seen on the DVD as Cox shows Cohen all the excised clips, none that are noteworthy except a shoulda-been-included moment with Otto visiting his TV zombified parents one last time — a brief, powerful scene.

repomanunicapAlong with what I believe to be the best soundtrack of the 1980’s, special mention must go to Wim Wender’s cinematographer Robby Mueller for his fantastic camera work here. The lighting is particularly impressive, the city coated by a sheen of blue and green as befits a neon dashboard world. And if there’s such a thing as transcendent punk art, the finale of REPO MAN would be the perfect example as all the characters gather in the repossession lot for one final showdown with the glowing Chevy Malibu. Buoyed by the absolute commitment to character, Otto’s rejoinder to his girlfriend’s, “What about our relationship?” is a simple “Fuck that.” Even Harlan Ellison loved the line (he championed the film in his print review). And when Miller beckons Otto to join him in the joy ride of a lifetime, the combination of The Plugz mythic spaghetti-surf-western track “Reel 10” and the legal car thieves flying across the cityscape into the infinite beyond makes for one of the coolest emotional climaxes of 80’s cinema, a lo-fi subversive CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Deservedly, REPO MAN has earned a place in the Great Los Angeles Films canon, with Alex Cox’s prophetic and unsentimental vision of a city over-ruled by its vehicles.

Or as Miller says, “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”


16 Responses to “Retro-View: Repo Man (1984)”

  1. Here is my story with this film:

    I had naturally always heard of Repo Man. The more and more I plunged into cinema history, the more it stood out. I could never properly appreciate it the way you could, Christian, since I had not quite been born yet when the film was released… But, I was always interested. And yet, I seemed to have an aggressive-avoidance complex with the film. I’d see a few seconds of it by accident on the Sundance Channel or somewhere else, and I’d immediately flip away. Not because I didn’t want to see it–I did–but I wanted it to be in the right way.

    So, finally, in February 2007, I find out that the Castro Theatre is going to have a double bill of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Repo Man. I had a class that went well into the evening, but as soon as it ended I ran out and drove to the Castro. I figured that this would be the ideal experience.

    And I could not have been more right. The crowd was not huge but it was large and the experience of soaking in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and simply listening to people talk about it during the intermission, and then watching Repo Man–simply one of my greatest moviegoing experiences of all time. Repo Man ended at around midnight, and the crowd–which had seemed to act as though they were in a church or some kind of religious service with Close Encounters–switched over to a rock concert atmosphere for Repo Man.

    The line you make note of–“I blame society…”–received such a roar. In fact, the whole film seemed to enliven everyone who attended.

    One day I’ll watch this again, but for now I’m still feeling the vibrations from that winter night almost two years ago.

    Anyway, superb piece here. Every generation, or era, or whatever, deserves its time capsule satire, and Repo Man is that for the 1980s.

  2. christian Says:

    That’s an awesome story Alexander. And I’m glad the Castro made the CE3K connection to REPO MAN as well. That’s a great double feature. Especially at the Castro!

  3. Aussie Boy Says:

    Alex Cox has stated explicitly that Repo Man is a film about nuclear war. On a related note, I have perceived a conspicuous absence of commentary/opinion about the ongoing slaughter in Gaza. (No matter which “side” one takes, one can’t dispute that the latest round of US/Israeli aggression takes the world a giant step closer to nuclear annihilation.) You’re a political guy, my dear Mr. Divine. Why the silence?

    By the way, kudos on the website’s format change. It was long overdue.

  4. christian Says:

    Yes, obviously REPO MAN is about nuclear fear. That’s all there on the surface. I should have mentioned something about the controversy over THE DAY AFTER tv film and Reagan’s quips about blowing up Russia. I don’t miss him.

    As to Gaza, your perception is clearly “yours” dear aussie boy. Scroll down to the photo of Gaza citizens fleeing in terror with all the comment I wanted to make. You missed that? I’ll post more when I want to. All I see is the eternal HOLY WAR both sides killing in the name of their god and bible. And it’s all sickening.

  5. I fear much of Israel’s rationale for this intervention is based in the jadedness of politics: they have an election in a few weeks and the current regime doesn’t want to look “weak.”

  6. hah, repo man is one of my favourite ridiculous 80’s movies, and definitely one of the best “punk” movies out there (right up there with tape heads)
    alex cox recently released a comic book sequel called “waldo’s hawaiian holiday” it’s about otto’s return to earth ten years after the movie.
    i haven’t read it, but it’s on my list of things to check out.

  7. Aussie Boy Says:

    I didn’t miss it, my friend. I just thought it was a little…safe. I missed your usual depth of insight and passion.

  8. christian Says:

    Sometimes even I have nothing to say.

  9. A good review on Repo Man.

    Thanks for posting

  10. christian Says:

    Thank you for coming by!

  11. frankbooth Says:

    Best. Repo. Man. Review. EVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

    Splendid job. If we ever meet, I’ll buy you a plate of shrimp and some Drink.

  12. christian Says:

    Thank you much!

    And I just thought “plate” “shrimp” “BEER”…

  13. Great review! You really nailed what makes this film so memorable. I love the defiantly unsentimental attitude that, as you point out, Harlan Ellison recognized and lauded in his review. And the low budget forced Cox and co. to label everything with generic brands thereby commenting on 1980’s consumerism! And, of course all the great lines of dialogue from this film… “It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes.” That one gets me every time.

    This film would also mark the beginning of a great run of films for Cox that ended (IMO) with the awesome biopic on acid of WALKER which effectively burned all of his bridges with Hollywood.

  14. christian Says:

    Thanks JD. Cox did have a great run, peaking with SID AND NANCY — and how did Oldman not get a nom for that? I need to revisit WALKER — isn’t that coming out on Criterion? The extra features on the REPO MAN dvd are pretty good too. Ah, the 80’s….

  15. That Criterion WALKER is out on DVD and it is awesome. Definitely worth picking up. Cox’s commentary is excellent, as usual. I hadn’t seen the film in ages and was struck by just how radical it was/is. And Ed Harris is amazing in it.

    As for REPO MAN, yeah, the extras on the DVD are quite good… one of the best audio commentaries I’ve heard in ages. it was fun to hear the cast reminisce about making the film and generally having a blast commenting on the film.

  16. Repo Man was an awesome film back in the day. Haven’t seen it for a while, have to look out for the DVD.

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