Sunday, November 8, 2009

Repo Man (Universal, 1984)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I hadn’t seen Repo Man since it was at least relatively new (on premium cable in 1985), and Charles remembered a heavily censored version from the USA Network back when it had some pretty wild stuff (including videos by Bob Marley and U2, the legendary 1965 rock concert video The T.A.M.I. Show, movies like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains and schlock classics like the Bela Lugosi Monograms) that included some scenes that weren’t in the theatrical release and turned up on this DVD as “deleted scenes.” I liked it then and it holds up quite well today.

Written and directed by Alan Cox, Repo Man has earned a reputation as the first youth movie that rendered itself deliberately, jaggedly obscure to reflect the alienation of its 20-something slacker characters — which it wasn’t; Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine, made in 1976, anticipated much of the style of this film (though the MacGuffin in that was a bad drug instead of a mysterious car containing a trunk full of energy either from a nuclear weapon or the bodies of dead aliens — Cox set Repo Man in New Mexico, probably because it was close to Roswell, though he shot in and around L.A. and many of the cityscapes are readily recognizable) and was ubiquitously available in the early 1980’s (KTLA ran it fairly often on their late-night movie show) and ready to influence future filmmakers.

But Repo Man is an excellent movie on its own merits, with Cox constructing a script that for all its weirdness and fantasy elements actually makes sense (which many more recent exercises in this youth sub-genre haven’t) and assembling a marvelous cast, even though his stars, Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez, are seemingly the only actors in the film who have been heard of since. The gimmick is that punk wanna-be Otto (Estevez) and his even dorkier-looking friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) start out the movie by being fired from their supermarket jobs (watching this part of the film must have been a busman’s holiday for Charles!) and Otto stumbling onto Bud (Stanton), who offers him $10 to drive what he says is his wife’s car — he’s got a cock-and-bull story that his wife is about to “drop” twins and they need to get both cars to the hospital right away. When the car’s owners come after Otto as he starts to drive it away, he begins to realize he’s been had — and Bud ends up leading him to the repo lot where he works. Otto is so upset at being turned into a repo man that when they offer him a beer (which, like all the food and drink products in this film, comes in a white generic container with blue lower-case lettering like the ones they used to sell at Ralph’s when this film was made and for the rest of the 1980’s), he pours it on the floor and someone else in the office thinks someone has pissed on the floor. (It’s that kind of movie.) Otto insists, “I’ll never be a repo man,” and Bud hands him the $25 they agreed on and says, “Too late, kid. You already are.”

There are a lot of subplots in the movie — including Otto’s ex-girlfriend (they broke up when, in the middle of what he was hoping would be a one-on-one sex session, she sent him away to get her a beer — and when he returned another man, a friend of his, was in bed with her) and her two new lovers suddenly deciding to become Bonnie and two Clydes and stick up local grocery and liquor stores (and by authorial fiat they seem to hit all their targets exactly when Bud and Otto are showing up there for more legitimate purposes); a rivalry between Bud’s repo operation and another one run by the Rodriguez brothers (when they meet up with each other in the L.A. culvert that’s been a site for action scenes in movies as diverse as Roadblock and Terminator, they do a chase scene, and later in the film they try to run each other off the road); and several bits and pieces of punk rock by major L.A.-based groups in the genre at the time (including the Latino punks the Plugz as well as the Circle Jerks — who actually perform a bit of a song on screen — Suicidal Tendencies, Big Race, Black Flag, the Juicy Bananas and Fear).

But the main intrigue involves a 1964 Chevy Malibu that contains a piece of white-hot energy material in the trunk that is either a nuclear weapon or the bodies of four dead aliens from the Roswell site (presumably) that have been stashed there and have become a W.M.D. in their deterioration. In the movie’s opening scene, a motorcycle cop pulls this car over and demands to look in the trunk. “You don’t want to look in the trunk,” the driver warns him, but the cop — probably assuming there are drugs in there — insists on opening it, and he’s hit by the full force of the energy (whatever it is) and is vaporized almost instantly, with nothing left of him but his big leather boots. Director/writer Cox said his inspiration for this was the neutron bomb — a piece of atomic weaponry developed under the Reagan administration whose stated purpose was to cause a minimum of property damage while effectively killing people (what it actually meant was simply setting the trade-off in any nuclear-weapon design between blast effects and fallout way over in the direction of fallout, to minimize the bomb’s danger to property and maximize its lethality towards people and other life forms) — but I couldn’t help but think of both Mickey Spillane’s novel Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Aldrich’s film version, which also featured a box containing an energy source which instantly fried anyone who opened its container and got hit by it full-force. The ending is pure fantasy but it works beautifully and caps a film that through much of its running time seems un-endable. It makes me want to explore some of the other Alex Cox movies that eluded me at the time, especially Sid and Nancy.

Incidentally, the site says Cox has just made a “quasi-sequel” called Repo Chick, and the “deleted scenes” segment of this DVD is framed as an interview Cox is doing with Simon Cohen, who supposedly invented the neutron bomb; as well as Fox Harris, who plays the bomb’s inventor in the movie — and whose longer version of his scene in the car with Otto is one of the few sequences in the “deleted scenes” whose inclusion would actually have strengthened the film; it would have made its social critique more pointed and more specifically political. Some of the deleted scenes would have clarified the film but detracted from its marvelous ambiguity; some of them would have confused it even further and pushed it more towards unwatchability. All in all, Repo Man is a major film that’s influencing young moviemakers even today (the DVD contained a trailer for Brick, a quite good recent youth drug movie that’s one of the best of Repo Man’s many progenies) and remains watchable and entertaining, mainly because Cox (unlike some of his more recent imitators) instinctively seemed to know just how far to take the weirdness without falling into the totally arbitrary plotting that’s ruined many an attempt at spaced-out youth fantasy since.