Movie Review: REPO MAN Remains a Weird, Transgressive Classic
Few movies can lay claim to revolutionizing the landscape of American independent film forever; Repo Man is one of them. Director Alex Cox’s pop-punk fantasia is a thrilling compendium of weird – Cox overstuffs the picture with punk rock and alien landings and corporate satire and nuclear paranoia and generational angst and working-class America and Harry Dean Stanton, and we’re still crazy from the heat.
Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan absurdity owes a little to how Stanton and co-lead Emilio Estevez face down society’s fringes with little more than a scowl and a lit cigarette. So too does Quentin Tarantino: his love of talk – regardless of the surroundings – can be seen in any of Stanton’s riffs on repossession, or Tracey Walter’s bizarre, rambling discourses on the nature of the universe and John Wayne’s sexuality.
What’s interesting is that a movie this patently, deliberately bonkers received funding and distribution from a major Hollywood studio. Say what you will about the evils of corporate America, circa the 1980s (hell, Repo Man makes many of those criticisms itself), but Universal Studios took one risk after another in an era that practically demanded homogenization. We have Ned Tanen and Lew Wasserman to thank for greenlighting Brazil, Do the Right Thing, and this (though, to be fair, Universal didn’t make it easy on any of its more unruly children, but that’s a discussion for another day). When Repo Man cratered during its initial theatrical run, Universal didn’t abandon it; the studio’s continued support of its punk soundtrack gave Repo Man the exposure it needed to generate interest in a theatrical re-release.
Punk saved Repo Man; that’s for sure. The soundtrack featured such genre mainstays as Iggy Pop, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies, and as such, fans have recast the film as the ‘80s great punk document: Woodstock for the Thrashers. What you might be surprised to realize is how little punk music is actually in the film. It’s on the soundtrack, sure, but on-screen’s a different story. Estevez’s Otto ostensibly hails from the punker crowd, but one of the picture’s sly gags is how disinterested he is in the sub-culture that can nominally brand him as one of their own. He drifts from party to party, but it isn’t until he starts working with Stanton that he begins to find his place in the universe.
That’s the weird, wonderful paradox at the core of Repo Man. Cox is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and he mercilessly attacks consumer culture and the authority that spawns it – in his vision of Los Angeles, people are anesthetized to consume, buying products with beyond-generic names like “Cereal” and “Beer” just because they have to.
At the same time, he isn’t advocating for total anarchy. There’s real dignity – crazed, coke-snorting, paranoid dignity, but dignity just the same – in what Stanton and his repo team do; they go about the dirty jobs that no one else will do, and they find a measure of poetry in the process. Stanton might unintentionally invoke Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics when describing his personal code (“A Repo Man may not harm any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm”), but it’s a code just the same, and not a bad one to adhere to.
If I have any problem with Repo Man, it’s that Cox loses the thread by the end. There is so much racing about at any given time – besides the various thematic threads, we follow Otto’s coming of age, Stanton and the crew’s search for a mysterious Chevy Malibu, and the various government and intergalactic forces that crop up along the way – that we’re not really surprised when the film starts flirting with incoherence. Certain characters disappear for no reason and then reappear at strange moments (it feels like wide, important swaths of connective tissue are missing from the third act), and I’ve always suspected that Cox came up with the film’s trippy, supernatural finale in order to distract from how nutty the proceedings had gotten.
The silver lining is, narrative muck or not, Repo Man remains engaging even when it goes off the rails. Its shaggy dog energy is infectious – who’d a thunk that the art-house scene would have benefited so much from this much lunacy? Repo Man reassured the indie crowd that while pretensions are good, flying (quite literally) by the seat of one’s pants is so much better.
Criterion’s Repo Man Blu-ray is a thing of beauty. DP Robby Müller worked with guys like Wim Wenders and William Friedkin, and his neon-tinged eye gives the low-budget proceedings far more beauty than they might otherwise deserve. The Blu-ray accurately represents Müller’s acid cinematography, while the LPCM monaural audio track does a great job of presenting the punk tunes.
Of course, the bonus features are where the disc truly excels. Criterion gives us a commentary with Cox, executive producer Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, & Del Zamora; three behind-the-scenes documentaries (“Repossessed,” “Plate O’Shrimp,” and “The Missing Scenes”); interviews with Iggy Pop and Harry Dean Stanton; two trailers; a hefty booklet with essays from critic Sam McPheeters, Cox, and real-life repo man Mark Lewis; and – best of all – the film’s hilarious TV version, which tries to make this very family-unfriendly feature safe for virgin eyes (and ears), and fails miserably.
Repo Man streets on Blu-ray on April 16th. Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.
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