Repo Man: Criterion Collection
April 16, 2013
“Not many people got a code to live by anymore,” says Bud (Stanton), the veteran repo man to his protege, Otto (Estevez) near the beginning of Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984). This film is all about personal codes and philosophies. It seems that everyone has their own take on life, from Bud’s Repo Code (“I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm.”) to pseudo guru/mechanic Miller’s (Walter) Lattice of Coincidence philosophy that is the core belief of the film. Miller views life as “a bunch of unconnected incidences,” with a “lattice of coincidence that lays atop of everything.” This is the structure that Cox imposes on Repo Man, creating several seemingly random events and characters that only occasionally interact with one another, but eventually all are linked together at film’s end.
Repo Man follows the misadventures of a white suburban punk named Otto who, after quitting his mundane 9-to-5 job and abandoning the punk lifestyle he once enjoyed, realizes that he has no real direction, no meaning in life until he meets Bud, who cons him into helping repossess a car. At first, Otto rejects Bud’s offer to be a repo man, but after learning that his parents wasted all of his college money on Reverend Larry’s Chariot’s of Fire Honor Role to send Bibles to El Salvador, he decides to become a repo man. Cox uses this initial event as a springboard to introduce a variety of unusual characters and situations that contribute to the satirical commentary on everything from T.V. evangelists to Hippies to punk rock. Initially, he presents these situations as meaningless, random events: a Chevy Malibu driven by a lobotomized scientist with four dead aliens in the trunk that fry anyone who dares open it; three old friends of Otto’s from his punk days rob various variety stores for kicks (“Let’s get sushi and not pay!”); a UFO cult dedicated to finding the dead aliens and exposing them to the world on Johnny Carson; and the FBI who is also in pursuit of the Chevy Malibu. Cox has all of these characters, and many more interact with one another throughout the film, keeping Otto and Bud as the focal point, illustrating that what seems like random, arbitrary events are really all connected.
Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton are excellent as the student and teacher, playing well off each other with the former learning the ropes, and the latter giving out his words of wisdom (“An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”). Tracey Walter as space case Miller is also superb. In most films, Walter has been relegated to nothing roles, but here Cox gives him room to move and he uses the time wisely presenting Miller as maybe the most intelligent guy in the film, or the most insane as he expounds his strange theories (“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”) to anyone who will listen.
Cox also establishes a refreshingly uncompromising, bare bones approach and tone to the whole film that, unlike other supposedly anti-establishment films (Heathers and Pump Up The Volume), never lets up. This tone is established with a great punk soundtrack (with the likes of Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks contributing songs) and almost documentary-like photography from legendary cinematographer, Robby Muller. Best of all, Cox isn’t afraid to cast a critical eye on anyone, even poking fun at the film’s own punk aesthetic in a scene where Otto’s friend, Duke (Rude) dies from a gunshot wound and leaves this touching soliloquy, “I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate. And yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.” It’s the old juvenile delinquent/punk cop out which Cox exposes so well as Otto replies, “That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.”
Repo Man is a clever social satire that attacks consumer culture on a small scale. Many of the characters have brand names like Miller, Bud, and Lite, while all the products in the film are labeled “Beer,” and “Food.” Cox twists the whole idea of consumerism on its ear, commenting on how we have all become commodities of one form or another to be bought and sold. On one level, the film is a bizarre comedy with memorable dialogue (hence its cult film status) and a killer soundtrack (the title song performed by Iggy Pop no less), but look a little harder and you will find much more going on under the surface. Many obscure films are often labeled a “cult film,” but this one deserves the label with its eclectic cast, a take-no-prisoners attitude towards social commentary and an unconventional plot structure. Repo Man is a very funny, entertaining film worth checking out.
Repo Man originally debuted on DVD thanks to the fine folks at Anchor Bay in a fantastic metal tin package that resembled a license plate and also came with the film’s soundtrack album of West Coast punk rock and nice booklet with photos and liner notes. Sadly, this edition has gone out of print and the rights have reverted back to Universal. Fortunately, the studio coordinated a new edition with Cox and he helped assemble some new extras especially for that edition. The good news for fans of the film is that they can now toss this edition and upgrade to the new Criterion Collection version, which ports over all of the Universal extras and boasts a new and improved transfer.
Disc one starts off with the only carry-over from the Anchor Bay edition is the excellent audio commentary by Cox, producer Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas and actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss and Del Zamora. This is clearly a trip down memory lane for all involved as they fondly recall making the film. Among some of the trivia dispelled: Chris Penn was originally cast as Kevin (clearly a prototype for Napoleon Dynamite) but that didn’t pan out. Everyone talks about their problems with the studio and tell great stories as they laugh and joke on this thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining track.
“Plate o’ Shrimp” features new interviews with musician Keith Morris (The Circle Jerks) and actors Dick Rude, Olivia Barash and Miguel Sandoval. Rude and Morris talk about how the L.A. punk rock scene influenced the film and honestly reflected what it was like at the time. Naturally, they all talk about how they got involved with the film. Barash said that Cox sent her to UFO conventions for research. All of the participants recount entertaining filming anecdotes with Rude being the standout.
Iggy Pop is also interviewed and he talks about how he got the gig. At the time, he was experiencing hard times and doing the song fulfilled a dream of his – creating a badass theme song for a film. Iggy is his usual engaging and entertaining self as he talks about creating the song.
Cox takes a look at a collection of “The Missing Scenes” with Sam Cohen, the actual inventor of the Neutron Bomb. We get more footage of Duke and his gang, Bud taking a sledgehammer to a faulty pay phone and more of the repo party to name but a few additional scenes.
Also included are two trailers for the film.
The second disc starts off with “Repossessed,” which reunites producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks with Cox as they reminisce about Repo Man. The three men talk about how they got the film financed and tell lots of good anecdotes. One highlight involves Cox telling a funny story about meeting with Stanton’s agent to pitch the movie. The director felt that towards the end of shooting the actor was too unpredictable and actually wrote him out of a few scenes. They clearly look back at the experience with fond memories.
“Harry Zen Stanton” features the refreshingly candid actor talking about his life and espousing his personal philosophy that kinda fits with the notion of personal codes and ethics in Repo Man. He comes across as a fascinating guy, a true original, in this excellent interview.
Finally, included is a special treat for hardcore fans – the cleaned up version of the film for T.V. Now, this isn’t some sanitized version made by the studio, but one created by Cox and Rude that features deleted footage and hilarious dubbing over all the cursing the characters do in the film. So, you get stuff like, “flip you,” and “mellonfarmer” instead of their naughtier alternatives.