Repo Man

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The early 1980s for American Cinema was a dire celluloid wasteland indeed. Outside of a few exceptions, Hollywood was taking no chances, much like the country at large. It was time to grow fat and enjoy the wealth.

But in this conservative climate, strange things were brewing. Dissension was in the air. Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man is the proof.

Set in the seedy world of car reposessors, Cox’s film cruises through the south Los Angeles streets strung-out on equal doses of satire, science fiction, conspiracy theories, and social commentary. But more importantly, it’s fueled with the threat, fear, and paranoia of living in President Reagan’s America. Though in Cox’s film the threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t coming from the Russians, it’s coming from inside the trunk of a ’64 Chevy Malibu driven by mad scientist J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), Kiss Me Deadly-style.

The car, which has a $20,000 bounty on it, also has three dead aliens in its trunk. The Chevy Malibu may not really be a car, either. But to Otto (Emilio Estevez) -- a hardcore punk who has inadvertently found himself working as a repo man -- and his world–weary mentor Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the car means cash. And lots of it. Unfortunately, Otto and Bud are not the only ones after the Chevy Malibu. Everyone wants a piece of the action. From kewpie-doll voiced Leila (Olivia Barash) who has been awaiting Parnell’s arrival, to certain suspicious blond-haired men in black, to the dastardly Rodriguez Brothers -- who also seem to be preparing for "The Revolution" -- the Chevy Malibu is hot, in more ways than one.

But ultimately, Otto could care less about the reward money or the supposed dead aliens in the trunk. He’s just along for the ride. With no aspirations, there are no expectations. Things just happen.

Emilio Estevez perfectly captures Otto’s blank-eyed stare and self-centeredness, though perhaps that has more to do with casting than anything else. Otto is pure Southern California suburban vapidity. Otto is so passive that even being a rebel without a cause would tax his inertia. But he is not unlikable. Perhaps what keeps us from losing interest in Otto is his perseverance and stamina to keep things moving. He doesn’t hold any convictions, yet he doesn’t just want to lie down in the middle of the road awaiting the next oncoming car, either. Otto wants to be driving the car. In many ways, Otto is a lot like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider -- passive, yet fueled with the urge to see what happens next.

Bud, on the other hand, is anything but passive. Harry Dean Stanton plays him like a grizzled, cynical, meth-fueled philosopher of the streets, though one with great deadpan timing. Though his role in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas may contain weightier dramatic moments and substance, Harry Dean Stanton has rarely been better.

Repo Man feels as if it’s about to come undone at any moment. Luckily, though, Cox keeps things from nose-diving into pure apocalypse (unlike Spielberg’s 1941 or Terry Gilliam’s wonderful, yet directionless The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). In many ways, Repo Man has a lot in common with another cult film from 1984, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension. Both films are surreal and slightly cartoonish, and both films feel as if they’re about to implode at any moment, which for their ardent fans is part of the fun.

Cox’s film has a controlled chaos to it. You may not always be sure where you’re going, but you trust that Cox does know, even though there are some plot threads that don’t go anywhere (i.e. the Rodriguez Brothers’ revolution). During the audio commentary on Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD release of Repo Man, Cox does admit that he had to drop that thread. Apparently, the film was going to end down in Central America with Otto joining forces with the Sandinistas.

Much of Repo Man’s success stems from its great ensemble cast and its script. From the smooth sociopathic stylings of Lite (Sy Richardson) to Miller’s (Tracy Walter) spacey Fortean monologues to Bud’s priceless wisdom concerning the Repo Code, no one is given short shrift with their roles. Robby Muller’s cinematography –- capturing the heat and proletarian rhythms of Los Angeles -- is as beautifully shot as anything he did later on for William Friedkin’s sun-drenched crime film To Live and Die in L.A.. And Repo Man also contains one of the best song oriented soundtracks of that era, featuring Southern California punk bands such as Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, Fear, and The Circle Jerks.

Life on the fringes of the American Dream may not always be sweet, but in the words of repo man Bud, ". . . an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo Man spends his life getting into tense situations."

Repo Man is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment in a widescreen presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs. It has been digitally mastered in THX and features audio commentary with writer/director Alex Cox, executive producer Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, and stars Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, and Del Zamora. The disc also contains the theatrical trailer, video trailer, and talent bios. Suggested retail price: $29.98.

A limited edition DVD presentation of Repo Man is also available. The limited edition sets are individually numbered and packaged in collectible tin containers (shaped like license plates). These sets also include Repo Man soundtrack CDs and 24-page, full-color collector's booklets that include rare photos, liners notes by Steven Davies (Alex Cox's biographer), and a Repo Man comic. Suggested retail price: $49.98

Repo Manis also available on VHS in both a "Collector's Edition" (letterboxed at 1.85:1) and a full-frame presentation. The "Collector's Edition" also includes a theatrical trailer and a video trailer. Suggested retail price: $14.98 for "Collector's Edition" VHS and $9.98 for the full-frame presentation.

For more information, contact the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.


Photos: (© 1984 Universal City Studios. All rights reserved.)