Review: Repo Man (18) / Directed and written by: Alex Cox / Starring: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter / Release date: 20th February 2012
One of the cultest of cult movies, Alex Cox’s debut feature ‘Repo Man’, hailing from 1984, is a film that could only ever have really existed in the 1980s, shot through as it is with a shuddering post-punk (futile?) sense of anarchy, a flavour of Reagan-era impending Armageddon and a now-quaint and slightly naïve nihilism which rubs shoulders with the film’s early murmurings of conspiracy paranoia with a pre-Tarantino soundtrack of slick street speak and salty urban philosophy. It’s even got a bit of a story to it…
Otto (Estevez) is a feckless and disrespectful drifter who throws in his shelf-stacking job when he punches out his supervisor. Disaffected and disillusioned, he finds himself initiated as a ‘repo man’ after a chance encounter with car repossessor Bud (Stanton) and slowly he learns the street-smart ways of the ‘repo man’ as he’s drawn into the sleazy, ugly, gun-toting world of people who don’t pay their bills and the ruthless people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Meanwhile, just to add a dash of colour, a 1964 Chevy Malibou is on its way to Los Angeles with a mysterious radioactive, extra-terrestrial cargo stowed away in its boot (sorry, trunk)…
Watching ‘Repo Man’ now, in the cold light of 2012, is an odd and distancing experience. Films from the 1980s, more than any other, tend to date themselves by virtue of that decade’s now-amusing fashions and music but ‘Repo Man’, with its brash punk ethic, just predates the thudding synths and big mullet hair which characterises (and often unfairly invalidates) 1980s movies. It sort of falls between two stools, upholding the slightly-stale mindset of a movement now well past its sell-by date and presenting characters who aren’t particularly pleasant and have no real moral code in their lives. ’Repo Man’ is full of grubby people; our hero Otto is swaggering and aimless but at least appears to be willing to learn a profession, even one as dubious as the automobile repossessor, whilst the ‘repo men’ themselves are sweaty and vulgar, motivated purely by profit and thinking nothing of pumping bullets into someone’s house when it looks as if they’re being given the bum’s rush. The film’s full of street gangs and car thieves and robbers and into all this we get the UFO conspiracists, desperate to prove the existence of alien life which has been hidden by the Government and the 64 Chevy Malibou that everyone wants to get their hands on before it’s too late.
‘Repo Man’ is a wild and schizophrenic movie and for the first hour it’s an oddly entertaining, stunningly photographed piece of work. But it suddenly loses its appeal, the story’s focus starts to drift as the Chevy and its cargo take centre stage and for once, the extra-terrestrial stuff seems a little bit less interesting than the tough story of the life of a trainee ‘repo man’. The whole thing becomes muddled and surreal towards the end as the Chevy becomes radioactive, everyone gets involved in gunfights and Cox decides to throw in everything including the kitchen sink in his determination to pad the film out to the required running time with logic and coherency thrown to the four winds.
Now I’ll happily accept I’m clearly not the disaffected demographic the film was intended for when it arrived in 1984 but it’s frustrating, coming to this legendary cult film anew, to find that, in many ways, it’s a wasted opportunity; it’s neither one thing - a gritty story of street survival - nor the other - a wild, knowing science-fiction romp. The two styles are uneasy bedfellows and in the end both stories are compromised because it’s clear that neither really has much in common and neither, ultimately, has anywhere much to go.
‘Repo Man’ remains a swaggering brute of a film and it’s a shame to note that Cox’s potential, so evident in his often-accomplished script and inventive direction, was never really exploited in his stuttering future career. It’s a curio of a film, worth a look if you’ve not seen it before but in all honesty, to get the best from ‘Repo Man’ you really needed to be there at the time.
Special features: The film, released in Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series, scrubs up well on Blu-ray although there’s some grain evident in darker sequences. Extras-wise this is about as definitive as it gets with a 44 page colour booklet full of Repo trivia, a new introduction to the history of the film’s troubled life from Cox himself, a roundtable discussion from 2005, a substantially re-edited TV version, missing scenes, an interview with Stanton, trailers, commentary and plenty more. Impressively comprehensive.