“Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em.”
Watching Repo Man for the first time since the 1980s is an interesting, sometimes daunting proposition. This is, after all, one of the the archetypal films of that decade, and while many people are able to watch those childhood favourites through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, I’ve found that all too often, the ultra-cool classics of that time now seem painfully dated. This is particularly true of films made in the 1980s (though I imagine that nothing will date more rapidly and embarrassingly than the achingly hip films of the last decade), where not only the fashions but the ‘edgy’ music and, weirdly, the film stock has often become not just hilariously uncool but also quite often genuinely ugly – movies of the second half of the Eighties often look cheap, even if they were big budget affairs. So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Alex Cox’s film for the first time since it first came out.
A weird hybrid of social satire, science fiction, comedy and action, Repo Man is essentially an episodic tale following the adventures of teenage waster Otto (Emilio Estevez), who stumbles into a job as a repo man through a chance encounter with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a veteran of the business who initially cons him into helping repossess a car and then takes him under his wing, teaching him the ‘code of the repo men’. Alongside a motley crew of fellow employees, Otto then discovers the highs and lows of the job. Meanwhile, a $20,000 reward has been put out for the recovery of a Chevy Malibu that has something in the trunk that lots of people want. Is it alien bodies, as claimed by Leila (Olivia Barasch) or a stolen Neutron bomb? Whatever it is, it instantly vapourises anyone who takes a look, and the archetypal Men In Black will stop at nothing to get it.
Thankfully, it still holds up remarkably well, and remains one of cinema’s most unique oddball experiences. Of course, even at the time, Repo Man was somewhat outside the rest of cinema – a film that seemed to be made for a hipster audience but one that repeatedly pulled the rug from under the viewer. Cox is a cinema provocateur, but that wasn’t immediately clear in 1984 when he’d done pretty much nothing else, and was immediately tagged as a ‘punk’ filmmaker. In truth, this film is rather more subversive than punk – especially 1983-era punk – could ever hope to be. Whether or not Cox took his reviews to heart and became overly self-indulgent later on is a matter of debate, but at this point he really did seem to be playing with genre and form in ways that were pretty radical.
In many ways, Repo Man is entirely of its time. A sly satire of the Reaganite world of the time, the film mixes subtle (and non-subtle) digs at 1983 society with more upfront comedy and action, and blends the social realism and conspiracy-theory science fiction quite effectively. Achingly and self-consciously hip, the film actually manages to avoid feeling too dated by tying its main character and its soundtrack to the So-Cal scene rather than the sort of mid-Eighties AOR or pop you’d find on, say, a John Hughes film. Cox’s musical choices were not particularly cool at the time, and (a few very Eighties synth atmospherics aside) doesn’t sound especially of its time – plenty of bands still play stuff just like this today, and so it has avoided dating as much as the average film with a Wang Chung or Flock of Seagulls-laden soundtrack – and of course, the LP was one of the cult releases of the decade, like Return of the Living Dead‘s alternative music-laden soundtrack often bought by people who hadn’t even seen the film. Admittedly, Estevez does look like a wimpy 1980s fashion victim – it’s hard to accept him as the hardcore punk kid he’s playing at the start of the film – and some of the other punks (notably the criminal gang who provide a sub-story throughout) do come close to the Michael Winner School of Punk Rock Caricatures, but beyond these stereotypes, the majority of the characters are the sort of run-down, fringe figures that you could find in any era of cinema.
Interestingly, watching the film again now, I was reminded somehow of Street Trash – not in plot or visual style, but with the constant underbelly of social depravation and despair that sits in the background of the various incidents that make up the film. Jim Muro’s film came out a few years later and was almost certainly influenced by this, not least in the curious mix of genre film, comedy and grim urban drama that runs through both movies. It’s an interesting thought to wonder how the two films would work as a double bill. The playing with genre that underpins both films was not new, even then – filmmakers like Godard had deliberately taken genres like science fiction, noir and so on and twisted them almost beyond recognition. But it’s interesting to see fantastical elements – the science fiction of Repo Man, the body horror of Street Trash – dropped into what might have been an entirely plausible, if exaggerated scenario that might be best described as hyper-realist cinema. With both films, there is the risk of style winning out over substance, and the lurches into the fantastic could overbalance an already overblown visual palate – it’s to the credit of both films that this doesn’t happen. We are, instead, pulled into a world where spaceships and exploding bums seems no more ridiculous than the exaggeratedly subterranean lives of the central characters.
In the end, Repo Man holds up remarkably well. It’s still very much unlike anything else you’ll ever see, and works on so many different levels that most viewers are certain to take something good from it, even if it’s just a few lines from the eminently quotable dialogue. Cox has done nothing that comes close since, from other cult efforts like Sid and Nancy and the masturbatory Walker through to 2009’s Repo Chick, which is almost impressively awful. Perhaps he never needs to – most directors never even get to make one film like this. Repo Man can be watched through the decades without feeling out of date, simply because although an uber-fashionable film on initial release, it never actually felt of its time. The film exists in a universe of its own and so will never seem like a relic of an uncool past. If only there was the chance that today’s desperately cool, knowingly hip and unbearably awful movies like Polar or 68 Kill could have the same future lives, instead of becoming cultural embarrassments within a few years (or, some might argue, a few days) of production.