The seamy underbelly of Los Angeles has been explored in numerous films over the years. A few of my favorites include Bunker Hill in Kiss Me Deadly (1956), the psychedelic Sunset Strip in The Trip (1967), and the downtown bars of the 1970s that Charles Bukowski drank in during Barfly (1987). As for the punk milieu of the early ‘80s, nobody did it better than Alex Cox with his classic Repo Man(1984).
The funny thing about Repo Man being considered a “punk” film is that it really has nothing to do with music at all. There is only one brief scene featuring a band in the entire movie. This comes with The Circle Jerks masquerading as a lounge act at one point. Yet punk is all over Repo Man, in the soundtrack, in the way many of the characters dress, and most of all, in the attitude.
We know we are in for a great ride from the very beginning. Over the sound of Steve Jones’ monstrous guitar riff, we see a 1964 Chevy Malibu cruising through the desert. A motorcycle cop pulls it over, and when he smells something strange, he pops open the trunk. There is a mysterious glow, then nothing but smoke rising out of the officer’s boots. He has been sizzled right before our eyes. There is some form of radioactive substance in the trunk, and as it turns out, there are quite a few people looking for it. As we soon discover, there is a $20,000 bounty on the car.
We next meet Otto (Emilio Estevez), who is clerking at a paint store. He hates his job, and creates a scene to get himself fired. His next stop is to become a “repo man,” and partners up with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). Stanton had already been around for a while, but it was his role as Bud that endeared him to a whole new generation of movie fans. In a similar career arc to that of his friend Dennis Hopper, Stanton would become a cult hero as an older, very scary dude in some of the coolest films of the Eighties.
These repo men live an intense life, and Bud spells it out, “You get in at three a.m., get up at four. That‘s why there ain‘t a repo man I know who don‘t take speed.” Shortly after making this pronouncement, the two are shown snorting speed, and Stanton continues, “Ordinary fucking people man, I hate ‘em. See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting intotense situations.”
The basic plot features the repo men going about their business, and hunting for that elusive ‘64 Malibu. This is really just an excuse for a series of hilarious vignettes though. One of the greatest scenes in a movie filled with them comes when Duke (Dick Rude) and the mohawked Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) go to rob the liquor store that Otto and Bud are in. Just about everybody gets shot, and at the end, when Debbi is holding a gun on Otto, he says, “Do you think it’s too late for us to get involved? Stick with me and I’ll make you a repo wife.” She tosses him a bag of potato chips as a consolation prize.
An even better moment comes after Debbi has walked out. Duke is dying in Otto’s arms, and in typical “juvie" film fashion he states, “The lights are growing dim. I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate. I blame society. Society made me what I am.” Otto responds, “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.”
Cox gets the details right too. In the early ‘80s, generics were all the rage, especially in punk. Stores eventually got the idea of labeling their off-brands to look like “real” products, but there was a period when a box of corn-flakes was just a white (or yellow in California) box labeled “Corn Flakes.“ Flipper paid tribute to this with their generic debut, Album. In Repo Man, every product is generic, including the beer. We used to call that rotgut stuff “Beer beer,” and it cost about a dollar a six-pack. For those of us who were there, this little element is spot-on.
Repo Manis one of those films that lends itself to multiple viewings, and was one of the first ones I proudly owned back in the VHS days. My friends and I watched it over and over. If you have somehow gone this long without owning it yourself, the new two-DVD set edition from the Criterion Collection is the one to get.
This is a fantastic package, with just about everything a fan could ask for. First and foremost is the newly restored 2K digital transfer, which was approved by Cox. Besides some very funny commentary, disc one also features interviews with musicians Iggy Pop and Keith Morris, and actors Dick Rude, Olivia Barash, and Miguel Sandoval. There is also a selection of deleted scenes, which Cox watches and discusses with executive producer Michael Nesmith, actor (and driver of the Malibu), J. Frank Parnell, and the inventor of the neutron bomb, Sam Cohen. The stuff with the elderly Cohen is unbelievable; the man’s vision is beyond dark.
The second DVD features a version of the film that I had never seen before. It is the “cleaned-up” TV version, which was done by Cox. All drug references and swearing have been removed. Surprisingly enough though, this one manages to retain a lot of the “punk” flavor. This version includes some scenes that were not in the theatrical film, and at 96-minutes, is actually a minute longer. It is kind of a cool bonus to have.
Two more extras round out the second disc, both recorded in 2005. The first is a roundtable discussion between producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, and actors Del Zamora, Sy Richardson, and Dick Rude. Then there is the piece with Harry Dean Stanton titled “Harry ’Zen’ Stanton.” He is (as always) great in this one-on-one with McCarthy. Criterion generally includes a booklet in these types of packages, and the one with Repo Manalmost qualifies as a small book.
The film is inextricably linked to the L.A. punk scene of the early ‘80s, and the soundtrack is one of the best samplers of the period that has ever been released. It was the soundtrack that sold the film, and in many ways, introduced Middle America to what was going on in L.A. punk. It was actually the soundtrack that drove the release of the movie in the first place.
Repo Manis a flat-out weird picture, and after it was filmed, there was an executive shakeup at the studio. The new regime did not know what to do with it, and it just sat in the can. When the soundtrack took off, it basically forced the executives to release the movie.
There are all sorts of subtexts to Repo Man, and one of the joys in watching it repeatedly is in picking up on all of them. This Criterion Collection edition of Repo Man is the definitive version of one of the greatest cult movies ever made.