Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Susan Barnes, Fox Harris, Tom Finnegan, Del Zamora, Eddie Velez, Zander Schloss, Jennifer Balgobin, Dick Rude, Michael Sandoval, Vonetta McGee, Richard Foronjy
Written by: Alex Cox
Directed by: Alex Cox
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 92
Date: 01/02/1984

Repo Man (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There are only a few movies that I've seen more than ten times. Like most red-blooded American boys my age, I saw all three Star Wars and all three Indiana Jones movies ten times or more. The same goes for Casablanca (1942) and Citizen Kane (1941). And then there's one that's not quite so obvious, Alex Cox' Repo Man (1984), which I've seen some 30 times (I've lost count).

Two things account for this phenomenon. First, I grew up in a small town where mainstream was all there was. You couldn't go to a movie or buy a record that wasn't top-40 approved. Our most beloved albums came from secret mail-order companies and friends who had traveled beyond a 100 mile radius from town. And our most beloved movies came from backroom bins in the video store, the ones people overlooked in favor of the newest, hottest releases.

I was a movie junkie even back then, and I had heard of the midnight happening called The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for which people dressed up and memorized lines of dialogue, but had never seen it. I wanted something like that too, even though Rocky Horror would never set foot in our hick town. (It played once and was outlawed before I was even old enough to go.) I needed something rebellious and anti-establishment.

I admit that Repo Man did not stick with me the first time I saw it, which brings me to reason number two. This movie was made for multiple viewings. Its humor is so buried and subtle that it will whiz right by you the first time. For example, after an exchange between Otto (Emilio Estevez) and Kevin (Zander Schloss) in which Otto explains a dream that he had where they have become 65-year-old bellhops, Kevin's response, which makes no sense at all, is "and then what? You woke up in a puddle?" The first time you hear this line, it's not funny. You're just baffled. But ten, twenty, or thirty times later, it keeps getting funnier. It's a joke that Kevin has no idea what he's talking about, tries to be cool, and fails miserably. Of course at least a hundred other great funny lines don't jump out at you the first time you see the movie, ("Let's get sushi and not pay"). But, there's no need to list them all.

But Repo Man is more than just lines. It's a punk movie first of all, with a hint of science fiction -- two elements that take it right out of the mainstream. It presents a hazy, druggy version of Los Angeles (photographed by the great Robby Muller), something which was very appealing to my teenage self, stuck in a rural town. It introduced me to punk music, and it also referenced many cool older movies, the most obvious being Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). And, of all people, the producer was Michael Nesmith, formerly of the Monkees. I still get a perverse thrill when I hear Iggy Pop's theme music coming up over Nesmith's name.

Yet a third reason the movie works so well is that besides just the funny lines, there are lines about the meaning of life, something we're all desperately searching for in our teen years. Miller (Tracey Walter) is the main lightning rod of universal intelligence. He has all kinds of odd theories about the world, including why all these people disappear every year and where they go. "I do my best thinking on the bus," he says. "That's how come I don't drive." Add to that the immortal "repo code." "Not many people got a code to live by anymore," Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) tells Otto.

Director Alex Cox knew a repo man in real life and rode around with him for a time. From that experience, a homemade Repo Man comic, and an unproduced screenplay written by his pal Dick Rude (who plays "Duke" in the movie), Cox put together a sort of Los Angeles repo-collage. There are innumerable in-jokes, such as that the four main repo men are all named after beers (Bud, Lite, Oly, and Miller). Despite, or perhaps because of, being British, Cox had a great handle on America and L.A.; especially that great chase scene down those concrete water aqueducts at some corner wasteland of the city. (Are these the same aqueducts used in Buckaroo Banzai and Grease?)

Despite his overall lack of success and sporadic working conditions, Cox became a director to watch. His follow-up film Sid and Nancy (1986) was one of the great films of the 1980's. His Walker (1988) and Highway Patrolman (1992) were critically acclaimed in Europe, but failed miserably in the U.S. Cox was originally set to direct both Ian McKellen's Richard III (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) with Johnny Depp, but both projects fell through and were completed by others. (He still has a writing credit on Fear and Loathing, though none of his work remains.)

No one seems to know when he'll pop up again, but if he keeps discussing the meaning of life in such an oddball and entertaining way, I'll be there for him. Meanwhile, I've got my well-worn copy of Repo Man ready for another viewing at any time.

DVD Details: Anchor Bay Entertainment released a spiffy limited-edition DVD box set of Repo Man on August 22, 2000. It contains the remastered movie, the soundtrack CD, and a booklet with photos, liner notes, and quotes. And it's all packaged either in a cool special edition "tin box" or in a regular movie-only "snap case." The picture and sound quality are top-notch (I've never in my life seen the film look so good) and the commentary -- by director Cox, producer Nesmith, and others -- is hilarious and informative (do you know where the "plate of shrimp lunch special" sign appears in the film?).

DVD Details II: The Anchor Bay discs are now out of print, and though copies are probably still available, Universal/Focus Features released a brand new Collector's Edition in 2006. It uses the same 2000 commentary track, plus missing scenes, a "talk" with Harry Dean Stanton, an interivew with Cox and producers Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy, and the theatrical trailer. The DVD now comes wtih optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.

In 2013, the Criterion Collection issued a Blu-ray edition.

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