Monday, September 1, 2008

Film #74: Repo Man

This is the very first major review I ever did, printed on page 9 of Georgia State University's Tuesday Magazine. Date: October 2nd, 1984, very nearly 25 years ago. As I am typing this in, I've made a promise to myself not to add or edit anything unless it's a egregious error. So here's how I wrote when I was one month away from being 18 years old:

How many times have you said to yourself "Gee, I sure would like to see a glowing Chevy Malibu reduce people to ashes as it levitates in a hailstorm of green ice?" Well, if you're imaginitive enough to have already considered this goofy idea, Repo Man will come off as run-of-the-mill stuff. However, if this sounds to you like a new and fascinating image, then this is the movie to see.

"Repo man" is street slang for a guy who reposesses cars and Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) has been a hard-drinking one for two decades. Otto (Emilio Estevez) is an L.A. punker whose existence is approaching new lows of meaninglessness. He's been fired from his stockboy job at a grocery store that sells only generic-brand products; his one friend is a nerdy fellow punk stockboy who shares Otto's love of "Beer" and punk rumbles; his girlfriend has run off with some other guys; and his parents are glassy-eyed relics of the hippie days who smoke pot and give all their money away to TV evangelists.

When Bud stops Otto on the street and tricks him into commandeering a repossessed car, their two worlds finally collide. Thus, Otto (notice the play on words with his name) forsakes his former self, dons a suit, and enlists in a more exciting (if not necessarily better) lifestyle. After his introduction to the other men at the repo yard, like philosophical junkman Miller (Tracey Walter) and Lite (Sy Richardson), the safety-concious big black guy working the repo circuit, Otto teams with Bud to steal back all the cars that're on their to-do list. But they hit a bump when it comes to this '64 Chevy Malibu. It's being driven by a slovenly crazy man with dark sunglasses, and in its trunk are the bodies of four dead aliens. Anyone who opens this secret compartment up is instantly vaporized, a la Kiss Me Deadly. The Chevy Malibu is, natch, being chased by vengeful teens, government agents, and the repo guys, all for wildly different reasons.

Repo Man is a mostly funny and engrossing blend of action movie, 1950s sci-fi, and The Decline of the Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris' 1981 documentary about the L.A. punk scene. 1983's Liquid Sky also comes to mind as an influence, but Repo Man takes a less experimentally manic road to the midnight movie circuit, to which it's destined to become a fixture. You can almost hear the lines being repeated by future Repo Man cultists as you view the film. (Tracy Walter's brilliant "plate o' shrimp" and "John Wayne is a fag" bits come to mind here.)
It's difficult to make true cult movie with cult appeal in mind without becoming cloying or pretentious. Look at The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O'Brien. His attempt to create an equally-loved sequel to Rocky resulted in an ill-fated (though arguably better) picture called Shock Treatment. However, Repo Man's writer/director Alex Cox (a Brit, by the way) rises to the challenge, almost completely avoiding the pits that have vanquished O'Brien and other filmmakers with midnight-movie ambitions.

We should also give credit here to the film's producer Michael Nesmith, former songwriter/singer/ guitarist for The Monkees. His Emmy-winning video album Elephant Parts also is an influence; like it, Repo Man makes great use of a not-so-obvious low budget; its photography is smart; its structure is episodic; and its chugging Iggy Pop theme music joins a memorable soundtrack with more hardcore efforts by Circle Jerks, Fear, Black Flag, and Suicidal Tendencies.

It's Cox's constant inventiveness with the details of his movie that make it stick out. Every shot is littered with details that can't possibly be absorbed in one sitting (but it's the sight of thousands of generic, black-and-white labels on every product that stay with us). To boot, Cox has thought through every facet of his story and lined it all with facetious comments about modern-day mores. It's unfortunate that the third act gets bogged down with weird-but-dull plot twists, but that's forgivable, if a little disappointing. (I almost wish the whole movie had taken place without the alien plot, because it's the clash between the repo man and punk worlds that's the film's most interesting dynamic.)

Even the performances are fine. Emilio Estevez serves up an engrossing mesh of Johnny Rotten, James Dean, and Wally Cleaver. He's a worthy heir to his talented father, Martin Sheen, to whom he bears a striking resemblance (see 1974's Badlands and notice the similarities). Stubbled, disheveled Harry Dean Stanton is, as always, completely absorbing as a man on the edge of a dangerous insanity. And lastly, I have to mention the superb character actor Tracey Walter, whom I first noticed alongside William Sanderson as a grubby team of Texas villains in 1981's Raggedy Man. As the acid-casualty Miller, he lets loose with monologues that provide Repo Man with its key notions: that life, indeed, is a bed of coincidence linked together only by time; that one faction of society is no better at its worst than another; and that automobiles, inside of which over half of Repo Man takes place, may quite possibly be either mankind's greatest savior or, more likely, its dreaded downfall.

No comments: