Repo Man (1984)
Do you spend your life getting into, or avoiding tense situations? If you’re of the latter persuasion then get the fuck out of here you goddamn hippy square, we’re here to talk about Repo Man, one of the more genuinely niche cult movies of the irremediable eighties, the spiky debut of British born director Alex Cox whose patchy career has never equalled the delirious highs of this original, delinquent drive. I use the phrase ‘cult’ movie advisedly; it’s a notoriously slippery and elusive phrase that requires some clarification in this context, given its wide net of interpretations and assignations it is sometimes deployed lazily by commentators and critics like yours truly, so bear with me while I briefly accelerate down this tangent. The moniker ‘cult’ denotes a slavishly devoted and committed fan-base, passionate fans who devour every morsel of information on a favourite film’s production, who obsessively hunt down alternate versions of the film across numerous territories, habitué’s who can parrot details of the film’s production designer, gaffer or location manager, and more often than not also regale their terrified audiences with a half-dozen other releases that such crew worked on, or interject fascinating information on the numerous movie posters they have and the specific track listing on the Dutch soundtrack import they recently acquired which has a slightly extended version of track seven which is not available on the original Hong Kong imprint. OK, I exaggerate slightly but under that broad definition Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings could all be termed as cult movies given their notoriously obsessed acolytes, despite these being the most successful films ever made which are household names, what I’m driving it are films off the beaten track, films with unique and unusual ingredients that appeal to specific fans for specific reasons, I’m talking Detour or Turkey Shoot, Matango or Night of The Hunter, Fear & Desire or The Day The Clown Cried, oddball, offbeat and obscured episodes of cinema that don’t exactly end up on a Sunday afternoon terrestrial television but movies when dropped into casual conversation will immediately give you a signal as to the relative discerning merits of your companion - I don’t think I could dislike anyone who enjoyed The Keep for example. This is a very long, circuitous journey of coming to probably the most ‘cult’ of my favourite movies (although on reflection Assault On Precinct 13 probably flags a close second), a movie which has finally bagged a long awaited Blu-Ray release under the highly regarded Masters Of Cinema home entertainment imprint, so let’s begin with those scorching, shrieking titles;
In cinemas finest example of a Sci-Fi inflected, nuclear nightmared, LA centred, punk-surf-comedy-romance Repo Man features the adventures of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a disenfranchised and disaffected teenager who quits his soul crushing retail job in a pique of existential ennui, before being hoodwinked by the grizzled Bud (Harry Dean Stanton in iconic cult movie gear) into stealing a car under the illusion that it’s his property and he needs to get it out of a bad neighbourhood. Yup, Otto has suffered his first introduction to the inalienable laws of supply and demand, and soon he is indoctrinated into the seductive, dangerous yet lucrative world of the Repo Men, those crazy, independent souls who live by their own twisted brand of ethics in pursuit of the reclamation of vehicles from recalcitrant clients, a motley crue of reprobates who operate on the fringes of the law in a sweltering, Reganite Los Angeles which is ‘Morning in America’ with a pulverizing hangover and amphetamine fuelled comedown. When a ’64 Chevy Malibu hits the news with a juicy $25K bounty Otto’s colleagues and their vicious opponents the Rodriquez brothers are soon on the case, little do they realise that the (literally) radioactively hot vehicle has been sequestered by the insane nuclear scientist J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris, evidently Dennis Hooper was too expensive) who is transporting a lethal top-secret cargo, as the Feds and a miasma of different groups close-in on their quarry Otto may have a few lessons to learn from some unlikely auxiliaries;
It’s difficult for me to be neutral when commenting on this jalopy as it was and remains one of my all time favourite vehicles, not because of its innate technical qualities or daring narrative functions, not because of its groundbreaking characterisations or genre bruising dexterity, it’s just the fact that I grew up with my best friends quoting the dialogue, digging on the soundtrack and most importantly appreciating the films irrelevant ethos, it still has a genuine, irrepressible spraycoat of authenticity that half the contemporary Sundance or other US independent movies lack, a throbbing purity under the hood which delivers misappropriated mirth, automatic amusement and some slight political commentary in a final, glowing aperitif. Cox managed to catch lightning in a bottle with this one, from Robby Müller’s terrific photography (he of course went on to illuminate the films of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch with such brilliant passion), from the soundtrack which is a sampler snapshot of the alternate music scene of the time, and most importantly a genuine sense of place and time both politically and culturally, if you recall this was the year that disembodied spirits were being hilariously tracked through the big apple and incompetent crew of buffoonish civilians were being training for law enforcement, so its nice to remember that there was some more credible, unusual, leftfield material on display.
A great cult movie usually makes up for areas it can’t possibility compete in – expensive production values, starry casts, technical elán – with those elements which cost nothing, chiefly great characters, salient dialogue, and if they’re particularly daring some ingenious, experimental use of locations and locales. Repo Man hits all three of the targets with unnerving accuracy, from the collection of junkyard oddballs that comprise Otto’s new crew (its taken me 25 years to finally realise that they are all named after American brands of beer), some convivial repartee (‘Nice friends Otto….’ ‘Thanks, I made them myself’) and memorable utilisation of both the Los Angeles storm drain infrastructure and my beloved Second Street Tunnel which crops up in numerous movies of note. The chaotic plot has links to UFO cults, incompetent government goons and brainwashed baby boomers, it’s very much a product of its era which still resonates today, and Cox’s subsequent attempts to weld together his Bunuelian flashes of surreal inspiration (plate of shrimp anyone?) with his anti-corporate manifesto haven’t achieved such giddy heights, from the product labeling prefiguring Naomi Klein by fifteen years to the dense plethora of cultural in-jokes populated throughout the movies mise-en-scene. You only need to look at a movie like Southland Tales to see how difficult it is to achieve such a tricky, accidental balance of entertaining exegesis, I’m also fond of the end titles inversion which has birthed its own mini movie genre,Repo Man would be ideally placed as the middle installment of a cult movie triple bill prologued with Buckaroo Banzai for a vision of what other neon oddness was on offer in 1984 followed with Dr. Strangelove for a subsequent dose of devastatingly radioactive humor, here is the genius ‘repo code’ which was partially concocted by the legendary Harry Dean Stanton in his most memorable of performances;
This Masters Of Cinema Blu-Ray imprint of the film is as handsome a hardtop of the movie as you could expect, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and 5.1 sound remix it holds enough horsepower to leave memories of those crushed small screen BBC2 viewings that I’m sure some of you joined me in back in the eighties and nineties coughing in the dust. There are plenty of extras for the aficionados to pilfer, as well as a deleted scenes montage with explanatory linking footage recently shoot by Cox we get a brief introduction that sets the context for the film, paying particular attention to how parent distributor Universal wanted to bury the film as potential subversive propaganda until the pre-release soundtrack started to get attention in the alternative music sub-culture network, with incremental word of mouth starting to build a modicum of buzz. A reminiscence themed documentary with producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, and actors Del Zamora, Sy Richardson and Dick Rude are complemented with a feature commentary with Cox and the crew, I haven’t listened to that yet but I’m sure it will have a few amusing nuggets and insights for all the movies disciples who are literally ‘out there’. The prized steal however is a unique copy of the notorious ’melonfarmer’ TV cut of the film which is a rare treat given its incorporation of alternate footage and hilarious swear word substitutions, an exclusive treasure alongside a hilarious half hour discussion with Harry Dean Stanton in which he is revealed as the cantankerous, difficult, prickly shaman that we all suspected him to be, at one pontificating that ’Iraq, Napoleon, serial killers, everything is predestined man, nobody’s in charge and it’s all gonna go down the way it’s gonna go down’ – so take the man’s advice, submit to the irrepressible mysteries of our alchemist universe, and hot wire a copy of this cult classic as soon as possible;