There are many types of movies that have achieved the status of cult classic. Sometimes they get this appellation because they are so bad people enjoy it, like Plan 9 from Outer Space. Others enter into cult status because they forever changed all films that follow such as Star Wars. With Repo Man you have a combination of the two. While much of it comes across as a film school project fundamental aspects of this film have been repeated in many modern films. The story follows the life of a punk loser Otto (Emilio Estevez) who, after being fired from his job as a grocery store clerk, is duped into stealing a car for seasoned repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). Having nothing better to do with his life he soon finds himself in the full time employ as a repo man. Central to the story is an old, beat up Malibu sought after by a mysterious government agency whose agents all dress in black. In the trunk of this car is an alien body. The trunk grows when opened and anyone unfortunate enough to be in front of the trunk when it is opened is instantly turned to dust. Soon everyone is after the car; the rag-tag group of repo men; car thieves, street punks and a mysterious organization known only as ‘The Agency’. What ensues is a romp through the darker side of Los Angeles as each group frantic search for the vehicle in question are forced into Africa each other. The seating repossession company that suddenly finds themselves in the middle of this quagmire consisted of the usual motley assortment including Miller (Tracey Walter) and Lite (Sy Richardson). There is a little inside joke here, all the repo men are named after beers, a fitting nod to their lives.
The life of a repo man is hard enough without rouge aliens and crazy earthlings running around. As Otto soon discovers as Bud and the guys teach him the ins and outs of the trade, people tend to get upset when you break into their car and drive off. It really doesn't matter that you have some legal authorization to do so. With an alien body in a car the federal government places a $10,000 bounty on the vehicle, a 1964 Chevy Malibu, making it the Holy Grail for every repo man in town. Otto and the gang join in the search. Otto is soon pulled in deeper as he tries to help Leila (Olivia Barash), one of the civilian alien seekers. The film is light on plot but in this case this is a good thing. A normal plot would only get in the way of fun. This is the type of film that you experience more than watch. You sit there and let it pull you into this strange and wonderful universe. There is no pretense here, this is a low budget flick and it is proud of it. The cast obviously had a lot of fun working on it and this translates to enjoyment for the audience.
Estevez handles the role of dazed and confused Otto to perfection. He isn’t searching for meaning in life as much as he is just for a way to get by. Stanton becomes his mentor, a poor man’s Yoda who imparts the wisdom of life through the immutable Repo Man’s code. Stanton, an excellent character actor, shows he has the talent to handle a larger role than he is usually given. While the writing is often pedantic, the talent of the actors in this film actually pulls off the film. Especially well played is the role of Miller (Tracey Walter). Yes, most of the male characters of this film are named for beers, the preferred beverage in this movie. Walter is the kind of actor you see everywhere. He is the low level crook in TV police dramas, the bum informant in cop movies and the typical inhabitant of the gritty places in dramas. Here he does what he does best, he plays a beaten down man derided by other losers. Harry Dean Stanton is one of those actors that might incite you to "say to yourself" where have I seen him before?'". He is one of the hardest working character actors in Hollywood appearing in such films as Alien. He is the wise master here, passing down his accumulated wisdom to the apprentice Otto. Stanton has the everyday working man feel down so that everyone can connect with him immediately. From the original HBO series ‘Big Love ‘to the film earlier in his career, ‘Alien’, this dispensing has mastered the art necessary for such a journeyman after; to slip into a roll to grace and ease of an Olympic diver effortlessly slicing into the pool.
The writer and director of this classic is Alex Cox. While he never really had another film as successful as Repo Man he does have undeniable talent. For someone born in England he has an excellent grasp on what makes America unique. Perhaps it is this difference in background that allowed him to get past the sociological differences in the human essence depicting it in a fashion that an American is likely to perceive it.
This moves the film into a difficult hybrid genre; the Sci-Fi/Black Comedy. The special effects are cheesy, almost laughable by modern standards but here they not only work, they make the film. The effects are so bad you are forced to concentrate on the characters. Cox could not get permission to use product names so every item is the film is the generic white label with black letters. Rather than find this a limitation Cox laughs at it with a can labeled simply FOOD or DRINK and a bottle of drugs marked AMYL NITRATE. You can readily see how much influence Cox has had on director today, especially, Quentin Tarentino. The iconic right glow emanating from the trunk was used in Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ is the same as the light illuminating the faces of the hitmen that they open the mysterious briefcase. Essentially both directors think Walmart is the undisputed master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. One of the trademarks of his directorial style was the McGuffin, inserting something into the story of great concern or interest to the characters within the context of the story but a fairly inconsequential to the understanding of the audience members watching. In both cases cited above that glow greatly impacted the characters but the fact that it remains a mystery is not hindered our appreciation and understanding of the story.
This is the type of movie is very much like a nugget gold found in an old 49ers stream. The discerning film about they have to sift through all more truly awful independent films before finding one worthwhile. And even like that nugget of gold in the stream, it may require some extra work and time to clean it before you can discover actual worth. For the ‘Repo Men’ has much in common with that nugget. It took a while for me to appreciate the potential to be found in independent movie making. Some of the first quote recommended to me as a burgeoning devotee of indie flicks, but once I struck out on my own I found myself watching the disheartening amount of bad movies. When I came across ‘Repo Men’ it took a while for me to realize the true value the cinematic masterpiece. Some of it inevitably had to do with the relative inexperience understanding some of the tropes in all types common in this category of film making. Once I had broadened my horizons and return to me watch this movie, I was much better able to understand why the director and filmmaker, Alex Cox, was trying to do and just how well the accomplishes goals.
Finally the measure of this movies were has been recognized in a narrow time on a fashion; induction into the much lauded Criterion Collection. Began in the age of the ladies that this, the Criterion Collection, has solidified a reputation offering some of the most influential and important pieces of cinematic history ever created. Their criterion has been expanded to include those films with spark not only enjoyment within the audience but that provided the incentive for filmmakers to do their craft in a different fashion. Stylistic approaches that Mr. Cox infused in this movie not only influenced such great directors that would follow such as Quentin Tarantino but it also heralded the use of science fiction as a platform for stories of other genres. In many ways this movie was a heist adventure only instead of restricting it to cops and robbers the story includes extraterrestrials and strange glowing trunks. It is said that a prophet is never understood in his hometown and this may well be the case for this movie. Almost every company that the producers approached the product placement refused them which resulted in strange generic labels as mentioned above. It also demonstrated the unsuppressed ingenuity that can be found in filmmaker. Just as Steven Spielberg was forced to shoot around the practical special-effects shark that always failed, and in doing so made a movie that was created such remarkable tension and suspense that it made the film better than if the effect had worked. In a Similar Way, Mister Cox being forced to use those white labels with black block lettering helped establish the environment that his story would unfold. This is a world most things indistinguishable. The repo men are inclined to do what is necessary to get along like most people in the film have little incentive to excel beyond their immediate needs. The generic labels seem to capture that type of feeling. There is no need to go beyond just letting the person know what is inside, whether beer or drugs, it is just there as is.
Posted 1/25/06 04/05/2015