It was 1984 and Americans were on course to re-elect a shitty, sadistic, semi-sentient president. In a fucking landslide. What better way to piss them all off than for a smartass Brit to flip them the cinematic bird, and to get a big American studio to pay for the whole thing?
Whatever director Alex Cox, fresh out of UCLA Film School after relocating from England in 1977, lacked in experience he more than made for in sheer chutzpah. The late-twenties tyro was perfectly willing to spin his punk-fueled comic book/script into a low budget film but when he stumbled into genuine Hollywood money (by way of producer Michael Nesmith, of course; what screams “Punk!” louder than an ex-Monkee?) he had more than enough confidence to make the flawless transition to (relatively) big budget studio filmmaker.
Perhaps flawless is an exaggeration; OK, it’s a gross misstatement. Cox feuded with volcanic actor Harry Dean Stanton and drove veteran cinematographer Robbie Muller up the wall on more than a few occasions, but whatever he had to learn on the job, he learned quickly enough to channel the chaos into a distinctly anarchic vision, and the result was a genuine cult film whose appeal has endured for nearly three decades.
“Repo Man” (1984) isn’t so much cynical as it is, well, punk. Its fringy, disgruntled characters might subsist on Beer-brand Beer and Food-brand Food, but they see plenty of opportunity in the good old U. S. of A.. They take advantage of it whenever they can, but they always remember to stop to tell people to go fuck themselves. Reagan voters, especially, but everyone else too. Grizzled repo man Bud (Stanton) puts it succinctly, “Ordinary fucking people, I hate ’em.” And why the hell not?
Otto (a barely in his twenties Emilio Estevez) hates ’em too, but he doesn’t quite know why. He’s angry both because it’s logical and fashionable. His parents are ex-hippies who have turned into couch potato fundamentalists, his job’s a dead-end, and his girlfriend can’t stay faithful long enough for him to get a beer. TV sucks too. So he’s against whatever you’ve got, but he also has enough perspective to understand he’s just conforming to another standard. As he tells a dying friend, “You’re a white suburban punk just like me.”
Otto eventually falls in with Bud and the other repo men at The Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, and finds the shift from “suburban punk” to suited semi-professional shockingly easy. Under Bud’s dubious tutelage, he learns that pinching cars from deadbeats is an expression of responsible citizenship; credit is a sacred trust and anybody who violates it deserves whatever shit storm comes their way. Those gypsy dildo punks!
Otto is also young enough and flexible enough not to be particularly surprised when his new job brings him into contact with a neutron bomb inventor, a cadre of FBI agents, a torture-happy new girlfriend, and a couple of aliens in a car trunk. These things happen, especially in downtown Los Angeles, and is any of it really crazier than living in a country that’s about to re-elect Ronald Reagan after actually seeing him in disgraceful action for four years? In a fucking landslide?
The film’s surrealist plot is both fun and funny as well as a perfect excuse for whatever technical flaws and jarring transitions the film exhibits, but “Repo Man” has remained popular this long for two primary reasons: the music and the one-liners. Universal had no idea what to do with this lunatic film they had been suckered into financing and planned to shelve it, but after the soundtrack became a hot seller, they grudgingly gave the movie a real release, and if it didn’t make buckets of money, it still turned a profit. The soundtrack was edgy at the time, perhaps “classic” now, with a kick-ass theme by Iggy Pop and tracks by The Plugz, Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks (who appear in a hilarious parody as soulless lounge singers backed by a drum machine), all of which are perfectly integrated with the rundown Los Angeles locations that inspired many of them.
As for the quotes, Stanton gets many of the best ones like “Repo Man’s got all night, every night!” and “I don’t want no Commies in my car. No Christians either!” But endlessly repeatable lines are spread among the entire cast, including the great Tracey Walter as a consummate bullshit guru: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are,”“There’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything,” and the eloquent “John Wayne was a fag.” The movie never does answer its greatest riddle, “How come that pig’s got a wooden leg?”
“Repo Man” was originally going to end with a nuclear explosion. Cox opted for something only slightly less subtle, which has cruelly left the door open for a sequel that is probably never going to come. We’ll have to live with what he have. Anarchy in the L.A. It’s the only way to be.
The film is presented in “the director’s preferred aspect ratio of 1.78:1.” For years, most fans were familiar with “Repo Man” only through its many TV/cable broadcasts, sometimes shown in full-screen and with generally degraded visuals; the only DVD release I ever saw wasn’t much better. Perhaps that fit the film’s DIY aesthetic, but I don’t think anyone will complain about this polished high-def transfer. This won’t go down as Robbie Muller’s most luminous work, but “Repo Man” makes great use of its Los Angeles locations, and the 1080p transfer does them justice. The transfer has strong contrast throughout which is a benefit in the many night scenes. There’s virtually no sign of damage from the source print.
The linear PCM Mono track is almost spotless as we would expect. The overall sound design isn’t dynamic but the dialogue is all clearly recorded and what matters most is the music which sounds just fine. You’ll obviously have to buy the soundtrack to really pump up the volume, but the tracks are sharp and, occasionally, loud enough to enjoy. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion has put together a fantastic set. Before I get to the extras, it’s worth describing the packaging. Though “Repo Man” is a single disc it comes with a very thick insert booklet (more on this below) which gives Criterion an excuse to tuck the keep case into a larger outer cardboard sleeve. There is separate cover art on both the outer sleeve and the keep case itself and it is all excellent, combining a comic book style with a punk music poster mode to great effect. Cover design is credited to Jay Shaw, Folder Illustration to Tyler Stout.
The menu animation might be the best I have ever seen, and it’s worth letting it all play out (it takes about a minute) before you dive right into the movie. The film’s fans will love it.
The commentary track is an older one (recorded in 2000) and brings together Alex Cox, Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, and Del Zamora.
There are a few other older features. “Repossessed” (25 min.) is a roundtable discussion with Alex Cox and producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks as well as some cast members. It was recorded in 2005 and provides an interesting and fairly detailed recollection of the making of the film. “Harry Zen Stanton” (21 min, 2005) is an off-kilter interview in which the actor shares his philosophy of the world, which he denies is a philosophy at all. You can understand how he might have been “difficult” to work with, and also why any difficulty was worth it.
Also from 2005 is the collection of “Missing Scenes” (25 min.) which is a very eccentric combination of Deleted Scenes (none of which are particularly notable) and conversations between Alex Cox and real-life neutron bomb inventor Sam Cohen as well as the film’s fictional neutron bomb inventor J. Frank Parnell. Cohen (and sometimes Parnell) watch the deleted scenes along with Cox and offer commentary. Weird and mesmerizing. Cohen died in 2010.
“Plate O’Shrimp” (19 min., 2012) is a new collection of interviews with musician Keith Morris and actors Dick Rude, Olivia Barash and Miguel Sandoval. We also get a separate interview with Iggy Pop (12 min, 2012) in which he proves that he is still the man. Stay tuned after the credits for an extra scene.
The disc also includes the “TV Version” which was cleaned-up by Alex Cox and actor Dick Rude for broadcast purposes. Since it incorporates a few deleted scenes, it actually runs slightly longer (96 min. vs. 92 minutes for the theatrical cut.) I haven’t watched the TV version, but it’s fondly considered for its creative censorship. It is presented here in 1.33:1.
The disc also includes four minutes of Trailers.
The square-bound 68-page booklet is one of the nicest Criterion has ever produced and could be consider a collectible item in its own right. First, the cover and interior art is fantastic. The booklet includes an essay by author Sam McPheeters as well as an interview with real life repo man Mark Lewis, who Alex Cox rode with for a while. It also includes an illustrated production history of the film as well as some pages from the original “Repo Man” comic book that pre-dates any screenplay.
This Criterion edition don’t go runnin’ to the man. It’s one of the most-attractive looking releases Criterion has ever put together, and fans of the film will appreciate it just for its style. Fortunately the content is a match with a great collection of extras both new and older and a sharp insert booklet that makes this a must-own even for fans who already have previous editions of the movie. Yes, there is considerable overlap with the extras on older releases, but I still think it’s more than worth the upgrade.
And if we ever do get the sequel, at this point the plot should be obvious. Repo men come to collect the Dude’s new car. That would abide.