Despite my affection for cult films and weird Hollywood productions that should not be possible in an industry that's supposedly so focused on the bottom line and disinterested in experimentation, I'd never seen "Repo Man" before this weekend. And now, even though my own youth was relatively free of mosh pit injuries, car repossessions, and encounters with radioactive aliens, I'm in love. This is a great, weird film.
It stars a young Emilio Estevez as Otto, he of grocery store clerkery and punk rock affectations. Destitute after his parents, brainwashed by a televangelist, give away his savings, he's forced into a job as a repo man. He's taken under the wing of a straight-shooting co-worker named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who teaches him "The Repo Code" ("I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm!"). Otto's new profession puts him on a nearly literal collision course with one particularly valuable Chevy Malibu. Driven by some kind of deranged scientist (wearing Warren Beatty in "Bonnie & Clyde"-homaging sunglasses), it contains a trunk so toxic (complete with "Kiss Me Deadly"-homaging glow) that it flash-incinerates anyone who dares to open it, leaving nothing but a pair of smoldering boots in its wake.
The repeated motif of people instantly obliterated as they gaze into the Malibu's glowing abyss is both a disturbing and strangely beautiful image -- and an interesting metaphor for "Repo Man"'s initial reception. The film was nearly lost to obscurity after Universal Pictures had no idea how to market and distribute it, and essentially left it for dead -- as if whatever Cox had in that trunk of his was too deranged and virulent for anyone to ever look at. Then its soundtrack album, which included contributions from Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks, started selling like mohawk-shaped hotcakes. The music became popular enough to get the studio's attention. Slowly, a cult emerged.
Not that "Repo Man" didn't have supporters from the very beginning. Here's the outro to Roger Ebert's original three-star review of "Repo Man" from 1984:
"I saw 'Repo Man' near the end of a busy stretch on the movie beat: Three days during which I saw more relentlessly bad movies than during any comparable period in memory. Most of those bad movies were so cynically constructed out of formula ideas and 'commercial' ingredients that watching them was an ordeal. 'Repo Man' comes out of left field, has no big stars, didn't cost much, takes chances, dares to be unconventional, is funny, and works. There is a lesson here."
The lesson is to be different. In a world where most mainstream movies are designed with comforting, easily digestible sameness in mind -- the kind hilariously skewered in the film's endless supply of generic grocery items like "Food" and "Beer" -- "Repo Man" is like nothing else. It contains a deliberately odd -- but never off-putting -- stew of ingredients: science-fiction, observational workplace comedy, even a tiny bit of a musical in the punk rock soundtrack that blasts through the din of Los Angeles traffic. It's funny and sad and even a wee bit scary, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over all of the proceedings.
Some cynical observers may wonder why a little cult movie like "Repo Man" deserves a place in The Criterion Collection. This is the reason. Like the great artists enshrined in its virtual halls, Cox made a personal, iconoclastic work (apparently inspired by his time working as an assistant to a real repo man -- and, I have to assume, chasing radioactive Chevy Malibus). This Blu-ray is a great tribute to his achievement; the cinematic equivalent of a pair of empty shoes smoking in the desert.
*NOTE: If you're particularly jazzed about the art on the Blu-ray, Mondo is supposedly selling screenprints of both the outer and inner covers some time today.
Read more of Roger Ebert's "Repo Man" review.