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Repo Man put writer-director Alex Cox on the map as a major independent talent, just a few years before the industry acknowledged that there even was an independent American cinema. Even more of a loner than John Sayles, Cox chose to go his own cinematic way, frustrating Hollywood's attempts to draw him into their game. Even producer Jon Davison, who much desired Cox to direct RoboCop 2, found the director unwilling to tackle such a mainstream assignment. That's a shame, as Cox's unhinged attitude to violence in society probably inspired much of the feel of that movie. To date Cox is most noted for the punk- influenced Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, about punk superstars. Walker, a bizarre spaghetti-western meditation on the political exploitation of Central America, pretty much sums up Cox's anti-Reagan era views. He's made several films in Mexico, including the excellent El Patrullero.
In its attitude and style 1984's Repo Man is one of the most influential pictures of the 1980s. Seen today, every other line of dialogue in Alex Cox's screenplay comes off as a quotable keeper: "The more you drive, the less intelligent you are." "You ever feel as if your mind had started to erode?" Disaffected punk Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) and his angry hooligan friends live a life of edgy dissipation interrupted by frequent episodes of armed robbery: "Let's go get sushi and not pay!" But Otto falls in with a crowd of automotive bounty hunters that make their living repossessing cars whose owners haven't kept up the payments. These junkyard layabouts and furtive daredevils are practically outlaws themselves. The citizens whose cars they rip off often greet them with blazing guns, in a Los Angeles that appears to be completely lawless. Otto learns the 'Repo Code' from the amphetamine-altered Bud (a wonderful Harry Dean Stanton). Being a repo man seems to invite collisions with other L.A. crazies: battered convenience store clerks, belligerent competitors, sinister government agents. All prowl the night undisturbed by the police. The proceedings become even stranger when the atomic G-men put out a repo warrant on a glowing sedan driven by the insane nuclear scientist J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris). Soon Otto is at center stage in a crazy game of 'who has the car?' that exposes strange enemies and creates even stranger allies.
Repo Man is a freewheeling satire that resists the urge to become nihilistic. Coarse and vulgar as only a movie about punks can be, it's actually very sweet in its own way. The cast is a gallery of affectionately rendered freaks. The universal alienation of the characters is not shared by the writing and direction, which grants all an equal blessing of ignorance and allows them to come together in refreshingly positive ways. For instance, the 'evil' conspiracy of intelligence agencies is not a cue for moral outrage. The film refuses to assign such simple labels, and prefers to watch in amusement as punks, federal agents, and repo men clash by night.
Chance and coincidence are as important as character in Repo Man. The throwaway bits are priceless, as when a frustrated Otto tosses an unopened paper parcel full of money out the window of his moving car, unaware that it's packed with money. Life is full of opportunities that these self-absorbed schemers never even see. When the feds intervene, the repo code creates an alliance between our squad and the kill-crazy Rodriquez brothers. The brain-fried wacko Miller (Tracey Walter, familiar from Jonathan Demme movies) becomes a key participant in the finale.
The acting is uniformly good, with Harry Dean Stanton the standout. One of the participants on the commentary describes Stanton's unique look by saying he's the screen's perfect "Western-inflected cadaver." Vonetta McGee, a secretary in the car lot, turns out to be working her own slick deals on the side. Longtime Cox pal and musician Zander Schloss has a funny role as Otto's friend in street crime. Petty punk criminal Duke (Dick Rude) delivers an amusing revelatory speech about quitting crime, settling down and raising a family. It doesn't stick.
Alex Cox developed the idea for Repo Man by actually helping a friend repossess cars. Some of the quirky incidents, he claims, actually happened. The use of Christmas tree deodorizers as a repo talisman was a real phenomenon. The repo culture depicted is both a weird world unto itself, and a great way to observe our society from a radical and twisted point of view.
Perhaps the most important person in the production is the cinematographer Robby Müller, who had been filming for Wim Wenders, and most recently, Peter Bogdanovich. Repo Man's colorful, clean images would set a new standard for urban exploitation films.
In 1984 only a few reviewers were immediately aware of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly and its connection to the secret in the car trunk, or its inspiration for the reverse-scroll of the end credits. But the atomic "whatsis" of Deadly is perfect for Repo Man's postmodern landscape, in which all road signs point to oblivion. Cox throws all kinds of bizarre elements (Televangelists, plain-wrap products) into his punk stew without getting lost in the details. The visually clean and unmannered Repo Man is a collage of staccato car chases, hilariously belligerent dialogues and deadpan paranoid science fiction. It set a style in off-the-wall satirical fantasy that was much imitated and never bettered.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Repo Man outclasses an old Anchor Bay disc from 2000, with a far sharper image, more stable colors and a soundtrack that shows off the film's punk music track with its driving Iggy Pop title tune. The full length audio commentary has the same lineup as the old Anchor Bay track: Alex Cox, producer Mike Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss and Del Zamora. It's followed by a newer round table discussion. New interviews are offered with musicians Iggy Pop and Keith Morris, and Peter McCarthy and Harry Dean Stanton appear in another interview.
The entire TV version, which cleans up the film's constant profanity, is offered as well. It also substitutes rougher scenes with alternate material, some of which shows up in a deleted scenes extra.
The fat insert booklet carries an essay by Sam McPheeters, an interview with a real Repo Man, and Alex Cox's elaborate comic-book that explains Repo Man's path to the screen. Disc producer Susan Arosteguy has outfitted the disc packaging and menus with an amusing punk-inflected graphic design.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Repo Man Blu-ray rates:
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