It’s no small miracle that Alex Cox’s Repo Man is even on anyone’s radar today, nevermind the fact that the weird little movie effectively jumpstarted the director’s entire career. It’s very possible that Repo Man could have slipped into obscurity and dragged Cox into the abyss along with it. There would be no late-night cult showings and, more shockingly, there would be no Alex Cox Director Series to presently grace your computer screen. Civilization would crumble beneath our feet and the decimated dregs of humanity would soon resort to cannibalism.
So be thankful that we have the junky, punky Los Angeles peopled by Emilio Estevez’s rookie repossessor Otto and Harry Dean Stanton’s Obi-Wan-esque speed addict Bud. The world of Repo Man is still freshly original, even today, still hilariously unique — a world where the beer is labeled BEER and the food FOOD, where repo agents are just car thieves that make a point of wearing seatbelts. Otto’s journey is one that goes round and round in circles, and the only semblance of plot in the film stems from a ’64 Chevy Malibu with some really hot contents in the trunk.
As noted by Roger Ebert in his original review, Repo Man follows none of the rules – there are simply no other movies about punk repo kids and radioactive aliens in Los Angeles. Detectives and secret agents pulled in for one last mission? Got ’em. Unlikely squirts finding the courage to overcome bully corporations? Yep. Repo Man, on the other hand, is damn near impossible to categorize. “It happens sometimes,” notes an investigator about a smoking bubbling puddle that used to be an upright policeman. “People just explode.” If these are the rules that Repo Man plays by, then the rules don’t matter much.
Cox was twenty-nine years old when he filmed Repo Man. He had a much larger budget than he’d originally envisioned and full control over the casting of the film, thanks to a measure of faith by Hollywood studio executives that seems outlandish today. It opened quietly and was pulled from theaters after a weeklong run. The soundtrack, though, chock full of “new” American punk, made a smallish comeback in the following months, prompting an eventual rerelease of Repo Man at a theater in New York City. From there, the film grew to the cult status it enjoys today.
And this still means that Repo Man has not had nearly the effect it should have — it could have — on modern cinema. Again, Cox’s career took off in a good direction as Repo Man gained traction — he went on to get the directing gig for Sid and Nancy in 1986, a movie which was well-received, followed by Walker with Ed Harris in 1987. Our Director Series takes proper looks at those later efforts, but suffice it to say that they’re quite different from this debut. Repo Man is important because it taps into and depicts a subculture so perfectly well. The pacing is so inviting and the tone so uncondescending as to bring nearly anyone along for the ride, in spite of the weirdo silliness unfolding before your eyes.
Simply put: we should have more movies like Repo Man. That silliness becomes a battle cry, becomes the entire world of the film, becomes something that challenges us to accept it rather than pining for our approval with tired gimmicks or recognizable characters. Once we accept the challenge we’re essentially in the car with the doors locked, doing 60 down the L.A. River. It helps that Repo Man is insanely quotable and that the running gags are so beautifully timed. What we might expect to be a sex scene is put on hold when Otto sits up straight in bed and says, politely: “Excuse me while I fold my pants.” Which he does.
So, in honor of Repo Man, one of the leanest and meanest and most straight-up fun director debuts in modern cinema: Let’s go get sushi and not pay!