Repo Man (1984) *****
Dir. Alex Cox
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Blasting out of the dreary landscape that was Reaganomics came one of the very few studio pictures that spoke directly to all those tail-end baby boomers and burgeoning Gen-Xrs who were hit hardest by the trickle-down economic policies that:
- benefited the rich (of course),
- did nothing for the poor,
- eventually resulted in ever-increasing unemployment,
- drove many twenty-somethings to look disparagingly at their ex-hippy elders for slurping up all the decent employment opportunities, holding onto them, piggishly, for dear life, building fiefdoms that allowed entry to only a select few who'd happily strap-on knee-pads to prop-up their ex-flower-power hypocrite bosses and allow for their accumulation of greater wealth thanks to tax breaks and keeping anyone with any new ideas (that they didn't feel like stealing) at bay.
How Repo Man came to be financed by Universal Pictures would have never been a reality if it weren't for the fact that ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith executive produced the film and secured a "negative pickup" deal with the big studio for this insane first feature from the early-thirty-something L.A.-transplanted Brit Alex Cox. Cox was initially going to make the movie for $50,000 and shoot it however he could - over weekends, on holidays and/or whenever he, his cast and crew and the gods of scheduling karma allowed. Nesmith was the saviour. He was able to up the budget to well over a cool million - though the risk was that his negative pickup deal meant that he financed the film personally and would only be repaid once the finished product was delivered.
Things happen for a reason - sometimes they're even good.
Repo Man was one of them.
With his mind-blowing first screenplay, Cox fashioned a film that was at once a reflection of the times, yet at its core, shared many of the values of his more seasoned 70s counterparts. How or why nobody had ever chosen to focus upon the lowest of the low - those men who prided themselves upon repossessing goods from the less fortunate - is beyond me. In 1977, Canadian Zale Dalen fashion the seedy collection agent drama Skip Tracer, but as great as it was, its very grim qualities would, if it hadn't been Canadian and thus relegated to virtually no play, still would have kept people away in droves.
Not that Cox himself hadn't fashioned a picture that the Status Quo wouldn't get, but he had two things going for him - youth and a preposterously morbid sense of humour. And though the picture was slow to start, having been nearly buried by Universal Pictures, its ultra-cool soundtrack album and a whole new generation of young movie-goers sick of movies that didn't speak directly to them or their experience, found the picture and its bonafide cult status was ensured.
Cox, of course, gave us a hero we all knew - someone who felt like one of us - a supremely disenchanted young gent with a huge fuck-you chip on his shoulder. Some of us watched the picture and not only knew those of his ilk, but we were, in fact, imbued with the same sensibilities. Some of us gazed agog at this character and nodded with silent recognition - this is me, this is who I am!
Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is an angry young punk rocker who can no longer take the dreariness of his job at a local supermarket. The final straw comes when his shelf-stocking colleague is happily and incessantly singing the theme song to a 7-Up soft drink TV commercial. "Feelin' 7-Up, I'm feelin' 7-Up..." croons the dweeb who ignores Otto's demands that he cease and desist. Exploding in a fit of rage, Otto cold cocks the happy-go-lucky fucker and storms off the job. Who wouldn't?
Fuming, handsome Otto pads down the street in his sneakers and civvies. A grizzled older man follows along in his car, eyeing Otto with interest until he drives up cloae and stops. Through his open window the man calls out in an alternately friendly and businesslike manner: "Hey kid, you wanna' make ten bucks?".
"Fuck off, queer," Otto hisses.
Luckily for Otto, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the older gent in the car, is a supreme kick-ass-take-no-shit motherfucking veteran repo man for the "Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation" and he persistently and successfully cajoles Otto into joining him in an especially challenging repossession. Otto's life is about to change in ways he'd never imagined.
At first, Otto hates the idea of being a repo man so much that he conveys this repeatedly - both verbally and demonstrably upon returning with Bud to the grotty offices within the chain-link-barbed-wire fence compound, littered with mounds of hulking Motor City steel ripped off (somewhat) legally from the hordes of Reaganomic-afflicted welches who've defaulted on their loan payments. Otto's reaction is strictly knee-jerk. When he's handed a wad of cold, hard cash for his part in the repossession, he's singing a different tune.
This disenchanted White Male Suburban Punk, soon sports a tidier look and opens himself up to learning the tricks of the trade. He's smart enough to know he's never going to really beat "The Man", so he becomes "The Man". However, Otto is still a green-horn and Bud takes the lad under his wing to train him in the ways of repossession.
Otto becomes a fly to shit and in no time he's jacking his fair share. And what a pair! Bud and Otto, not unlike the wizened veteran cop with his cocky rookie partner from so many policiers, eventually develop mutual respect and in so doing, fast cash becomes Otto's salvation.
What I haven't mentioned yet, though, are the liberal doses of conspiracy theory dished out by Helping Hand's sage-like trashman (Tracey Walter), the unbelievably stupid punks (Dick Rude, Jennifer Balgobin, Michael Sandoval) who were once Otto's friends and eventually engage in armed robbery to support their drug and booze habits. There is, of course, a delightfully perky love interest (Olivia Barash), a hot leggy FBI agent (Susan Barnes) on the trail of a radiation-crazed mad scientist who invented the neutron bomb (Fox Harris), one of the coolest punk soundtracks ever assembled for any movie, the largest assortment of generic product on virtually every store shelf in the world of the movie and, last but not least, the aliens.
Cox has assembled such a great cast here and their work remains as great today as it was upon first seeing the film. Stanton has the role of his career as the surly, world weary sage of repossession, while Emilio Estevez has, to this day, never been better and the real treat, of course, is the inimitable character actor Tracey Walter as the wise, seemingly insane conspiracy theorist whose beliefs ultimately tie-in with the very ethos of the period and the film itself. Yet, the cast is only as good as Cox's writing which delivers the outlandish while making it strangely real and the dialogue he pens to put in their mouths is terse and funny.
|JOHN WAYNE WAS A FAG!|
Veering from an almost neo-realist 70s-style nihilism to a whacked-out druggie comedy to a borderline surreal presentation of a world gone completely nuts, Repo Man (tying with David Lynch's Blue Velvet) is the ultimate 80s film in American cinema. Cox's picture virtually spits in the face of the feel-goody-two-shoes of the execrable John Hughes teen dramedies and the sprawling, noisy, state-of-the-art macho action and adventure films that populated that wretched decade of cinema.
And make no mistake, this is no mere product of its period - Cox's style remains fresh and thematically, the picture is as relevant to our contemporary political, economic and strife-ridden world as it was during the reign of rompin' Ronnie. Repo Man remains one of the cleanest breaths of fresh air for its generation as Easy Rider was for the 60s. Most importantly, Cox pulled off a picture that will continue to speak to new generations - now and for some time to come.
This, of course, is what makes a classic.
The Criterion Collection edition of this film is utterly phenomenal. There is the requisite commentary track, though it is the somewhat disappointing DVD version that was used, I believe, on the old Anchor Bay limited numbered tin box edition from a few years ago. It includes far too many people on it (Cox, executive producer Michael Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, plus actors Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss and Del Zamora), and as such is anecdotal, delivering far less emphasis on Cox and his storytelling techniques as both a writer and director. In a perfect world, I think an additional track with Cox solo on this element alone who have been far more insightful and instructive. People who like anecdotal-styled commentaries will NOT, however, be disappointed in the least - as far as they go, it's much superior to most.
What shines are all the other added value features. Deleted scenes, many of which are genuinely terrific in and of themselves, are presented with some very amusing interstitial segments involving some extremely surprising guests joining Cox in the proceedings. A taped roundtable discussion between Cox, producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, Zamora, Richardson, and Rude on the making of the film seems at first a repeat of the issues discussed in the commentary, but proves to be decently supplemental. That said, there's too much emphasis on the physical production aspects of the "making", but not nearly enough for my tastes about Cox's process as a writer and director from a story standpoint. Given the political implications of the film - then, as well as now - I'd have really enjoyed hearing Cox address these in ways he'd obviously be capable of.
New interviews with musicians Iggy Pop and Keith Morris and actors Dick Rude, Olivia Barash and Miguel Sandoval are thoroughly delightful, though and it's fun seeing both the used and unused trailers for the film.
The two utterly exquisite highlights of Criterion's great disc are a "cleaned-up" television version of Repo Man - replete with all sorts of hilarious alternatives to the more "foul" elements of the picture as well as scenes not used in the theatrical version; and the second item is a phenomenal taped conversation between producer Peter McCarthy (whose questions are always terrific) and Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton's philosophies on life and work are insanely cool - so convinced are we of his POV that we only think AFTER watching it that he might have brilliantly been pulling our respective legs. He probably wasn't, but this interview is, I think so historically important that it works as a mini-film unto itself and feels less like an "extra" and closer to the sort of creative approach taken years ago by the master of these sorts of things, Laurent Bouzerau. The packaging is impeccable and the added booklet is packed with tons of great reading (including Cox's original financing proposal for the film). The artwork and art direction of the booklet, the box and the menus are all first rate.
This is not only a great and important movie, but overall, the Criterion presentation (along with the exquisite transfer) is one of the best I've had the pleasure to dive into in years.