Repo Man Review
Repo Man was surely destined to be a complete one-off. Its director, the 29-year-old Alex Cox, was a Liverpudlian punk fresh out of UCLA. To further the incongruity he was also a massive fan of Spaghetti Westerns, somewhat politically engaged and had studied alongside such key proponents of the ‘L.A. Rebellion’ movement as Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. What else could such a combination produce other than a work of genuine distinction? Certainly, there were influences in place and its also true that various little acts of homage and/or straightforward rip-offs have been produced down the years. But Repo Man remains very much its own film: one of those rare debut features that appeared to herald an entirely new talent. Cox’s subsequent career has been too wilful, too bizarre and too erratic to judge whether it has lived up to that promise - a series of mostly what-the-fuck moments dotted with some real highpoints - yet we’ll always Repo Man, perhaps the greatest American movie of the 1980s.
At the centre of Repo Man is Otto, an 18-year-old punk living in his parents’ garage in downtown Los Angeles. The geographical distinction is an important one as these West Count punks are a different breed to their East Coast or UK counterparts. Their soundtrack isn’t the CBGB sound of New York or that of the Sex Pistols or the Clash. It’s the first wave of hardcore punk that came out of L.A. during the late seventies, that of Fear and the Circle Jerks (who put in a cameo appearance), Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies. The ethos, and especially the energy, are differently placed: more intense than the CBGB scene and lacking that art school edge. The cinema of the British punk was more often than not class-based and mostly non-fiction (Punk in London, The Punk Rock Movie, D.O.A.). The cinema from the West Coast was that of the ‘no wave’ scene: edgy, transgressive, zero budget, underground. There were exceptions to both - the post-Sex Pistols Sex Pistols movie that was The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle; the truly infectious Ramones-plus-teen comedy of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School - and fittingly it is these exceptions which sit the easiest alongside Repo Man. They’re irreverent, inventive, restless in their onslaught of ideas and forever refusing to take themselves seriously.
Such qualities don’t necessarily translate into an easy synopsis, but here’s an attempt… Otto has recently lost his job, his girl and any sense of direction he may have had. He gets roped into the world of the repo man by complete accident: tricked into a aiding Harry Dean Stanton’s Bud on a job. Repo men, we quickly ascertain, are the scourge of the earth, not to mention the perfect embodiment of capitalism. But with little to nothing else to do, Otto joins them, becoming pupil to Bud’s Zen master. Meanwhile, a Chevy Malibu is in the area with a mysterious cargo in its trunk. A highway cop is incinerated simply by taking a look; the FBI are on the case, as too are the conspiracy nuts. Soon enough the car will also appear on repo lists meaning the Bud, Otto, et al, plus rivals the Rodriguez Brothers, will also be pursuit. In the background Otto’s ex-girlfriend and former pals are out committing a series of hold-ups, plus his folks have become enthralled by a televangelist. Somehow, over the course of just 92 minutes, all of this will converge into a perfect fit.
Looking at those in front of camera, there’s a similar kind of divergent alchemy at work in the casting. Otto is played by Emilio Estevez, in his first leading part and not yet tainted by those eighties ‘brat pack’ connections (The Breakfast Club, Young Guns) that would otherwise undo such a role. Not once do visions of him cart-wheeling whilst high interfere - he is Otto. Similarly, Harry Dean Stanton is Bud, the actor having put in enough hours in various Westerns and sundry cult items by the early eighties to finally earn himself some parts we simply couldn’t imagine with anyone else. (Paris, Texas was released the same year as Repo Man.) Alongside this central pairing we also get a first glimpse at what would become Cox’s regular band of players. Dick Rude (originally lined up for the part of Otto had Repo Man been made as a student film rather than a Universal production), Zander Schloss, Miguel Sandoval and Sy Richardson would all pop up again for the director in the future, some more often than others, but all to the point where I now associate them more with their features for Cox than any other role. Adding a final air of cult-ishness we also get the prolific character actor Tracey Walter (winning a Saturn Award for his efforts) and, as already mentioned, the Circle Jerks, here giving a live acoustic performance of When the Shit Hits the Fan.
The other bit of perfect casting was the decision to employ Robby Muller behind the camera. He’d shot all of Wim Wenders’ features to date and had been working in the US over the past few years thanks to Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed and the underrated Honeysuckle Rose. As he has so deftly shown with films like Paris, Texas and To Live and Die in L.A., Muller knows how to capture the States in a distinctive - and distinctly cinematic - manner. He comes with that outsider eye and as such is able to see the city afresh. So too, of course, is our Liverpudlian director, though this doesn’t extend simply to the look of Repo Man. Indeed, everything is approached from the outside, resulting in a mixture of awe and irreverence. Downtown L.A., for example, is treated with genuine love: a melting pot of minorities, ethnicities and subcultures. The familiar face of the city - that is to say the skyscrapers - are relegated to a mere background role, forever in the distance never to be reached. More to the point, we only see “ordinary fucking people” the once, and solely so that Bud can declare is hate for them.
Other aspects of Americana impress Cox less. Car chases he does like, but televangelism, Reagan, American interventionism, nuclear weaponry, science fiction and genre cinema in general all find themselves on the receiving end of various swipes. Some are quite forceful, others more of a gentle mockery, though all come with a mixture of disdain and fascination. The subversion of well-honed clichés is particularly amusing: everyone is quite happy to tell the authorities everything whether threatened with torture or not; the wonderful “fuck that” pay-off to the film’s ‘love story’. The overall tone is hard to pin down - cartoon-ish is almost there but leaves the wrong impression - though a number of contemporaneous features later to screen during Cox’s tenure as host of BBC2’s Moviedrome would share in some of its sensibilities: Night of the Comet, Something Wild, Nothing Lasts Forever. Incidentally, Cox signed off from Moviedrome, rather fittingly, with a just-after-midnight screening of Robert Aldrich’s classic 1955 noir Kiss Me Deadly, a film whose influence is felt throughout Repo Man.
Not that ideas are simply recycled from this or any other picture. Unlike the cinema of Quentin Tarantino (who owes a massive debt to Repo Man, one that is rarely acknowledged), which seems to increasingly resemble a moving picture list of nods, winks and references, the homage to Kiss Me Deadly is just a tiny element, a mere element in a whole network of ideas. Indeed, Repo Man has invention in abundance. It’s full of little details, touches and concepts - convenience stores stocking only generic items labelled ‘food’, ‘drink’ or ‘beer’; Zander Schloss inventing Napoleon Dynamite almost twenty years in advance; seemingly endless lines of quotable dialogue - and that can only translate into a wonderful, endlessly re-watchable filmmaking. As I said at the top of this review, Cox’s subsequent career (which I probably have more time for than most) is too erratic to judge whether it has ever lived up to the early promise. But we’ll always have Repo Man. And now we have it on a Blu-ray disc.
Repo Man is the latest beneficiary of the deal between Masters of Cinema and Universal that has so far seen definitive editions of Touch of Evil and Silent Running come to UK Blu-ray. As with those releases Repo Man is Blu-ray only and available in two packaging options: standard or limited edition steelbook. Note, however, that both are identical in terms of content - the same wealth of extras, the same excellent booklet compiled and created by Alex Cox himself.
Encoded for Region B, a single dual-layered disc houses the film and its healthy array of extras. Not that this affects the presentation. Repo Man is here in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, accompanied by its original mono soundtrack, and both are in decent shape. Both demonstrate occasional signs of their age at times, as we should fully expect, but both are also crisp, clean and clear. Any issues would appear to be inherent in the film’s production and, of course, we need to consider its budget: high enough to satisfy the Screen Actors Guild levels of the time; low enough to lack the polish of a genuine studio picture. Put simply, we are getting Repo Man as it should look. It was never going to be ‘demonstration disc’ material, but it’s also unlikely to ever to be bettered on this format.
As well as the original mono Repo Man can also be watched with just the music and sound effects or with a multi-participant audio commentary. Cox is joined by executive producer and former-Monkee Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas and three of his actors, Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss and Del Zamora. Given the size of the group this makes for an unruly piece: people talk over each other, disagree with each other, crack jokes or laugh along with the movie. However, they also provide a wealth of anecdotal memories. The “John Wayne is a fag” speech was based entirely on a tale related to Cox, for example, and there’s plenty more besides. A worthwhile listen.
The commentary first appeared on the old US disc from Anchor Bay (released back in 2000) and subsequently re-emerged on the 2006 US disc from Universal. Here in the UK we were lumbered with a very basic vanilla offering so it’s good to see some other additions carried over from that latter edition. As well as the original theatrical trailer, we have 25-minutes worth of deleted scenes which are interspersed with the thoughts and recollections of Cox, Nesmith, neutron bomb inventor Sam Cohen (“the US has an impeccable record of using violence”) and Fox Harris in-character as J. Frank Parnell. We also have a featurette entitled ‘Repossessed’ in which Cox and his producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks sit around and reminisce about the film whilst actors Richardson, Zamora and Dick Rude also pop up for their thoughts. Here we learn of Cox’s research in which he spent some time with an actual repo man and nabbed much of his philosophy. We also learn that it was once suggested that Mick Jagger should take the part of Bud. The final carry-over is a 21-minute interview with Stanton that is alternately combative, enlightening and musical. (Anyone who has watched the extras on any Alex Cox DVD release will understand and recognise the inherent off-kilter and ramshackle nature of these special features.)
Making an appearance for the first time is the so-called ‘Melon Farmers’ re-edit of the film which substituted mostly nonsense terms for any bad language (melon farmers is the replacement for motherfucker) but also included some previously unseen footage and experienced other tweaks and edits. Unlike those original British TV screenings of violent and/or sweary eighties movies - Midnight Run, Predator, Die Hard, Commando, Robocop, and so on - which always went for the unintentionally hilarious re-dub alongside snipping away any potentially offensive material, this was all overseen by the director himself. The result plays out like just another sly subversion and, as a result, works rather well. Indeed, this version has no doubt contributed to the cult of Repo Man over the years hence its inclusion here. Note, however, that its presentation is not a match for the main feature and also comes in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio as per those television screenings.
Also new to this edition is an 11-minute intro from Cox which takes in his experiences with Universal, an album sampler, Iggy Pop, Pan Am, Rumble Fish and Repo Chick. This isn’t a conventional lead in piece and that what makes it so appealing. Just like his best Moviedrome intros (such as the one for Nothing Lasts Forever which I remember being very odd), Cox is at his best when approaching from unexpected angles. Indeed, we also find this in the 44-page booklet he has concocted. If you’ve seen the latest Sight & Sound magazine (March 2012 issue) then you’ll have had a sneak peak at its comic strip format born out of the fact that Repo Man started life as such. Here we find the original drawings, plus new ones and a reproduction of the original film proposal. It really is a one-of-a-kind addition, fully worth a proper perusal and - as with so many of this disc’s additions - full of trivia and odd bits of info. It’s a fine way to top of what will surely remain Repo Man’s definitive home media edition.