Saturday 26 March 2011

Repo Man (1984)

Read enough of these blog entries and you'll find me make plenty of references to Alex Cox.  When I was kid, just getting into the more esoteric side of cinema, Cox made a good number of witty and illuminating introductions to screenings of cult films on BBC2 television in a strand called "Moviedrome".  Through him I learned not just about the films themselves but about the sometimes nefarious workings of the film industry, and about politics, literature and music.  Cox had, and probably still has, very strong views about films but it was refreshing to hear someone talk so animatedly and knowledgably about the kind of films I was interested in.  Up to that point, the only show on British TV that discussed films was bloody Barry Norman on the anodyne Film 88, or whatever the year happened to be.  Norman was one of those critics who loved 'quality' cinema and was usually pretty scathing about delirious films.

Unfortunately, Cox stopped doing Moviedrome sometime in the 1990s and was replaced by the vowel-mangling Mark Cousins who, while still preferable to Barry Norman, clearly saw himself as more of a film scholar than a fan like Cox.  The introductions were still worth watching but if you look them up on YouTube and compare Cousins to Cox, you'll find Cox is much better: more passionate, more irreverent and ultimately more insightful.  Cox, of course, was only moonlighting as a TV presenter because he was a director in his own right and his debut feature REPO MAN (1984) is, not surprisingly, another candidate for the title of Definitive Cult Movie: it's weird, it pays homage to plenty of other movies, it has a cast full of oddball characters, it has a witty script and a kind of anti-authoritarian sensibility which cocks a snook at conformity.

Lost in the supermarket
Bud explains the Repo Code to Otto
What I like most about REPO MAN is its energy and verve: it's always on the move, there's always something interesting going on and it doesn't waste any time.  In those respects and also in its insouciance it reflects Cox's love of punk.  In fact you might go so far as to describe it as a punk movie - the music, characters and settings are all influenced by, if not actual depictions of, the punk scene of 1980s Los Angeles.  Cox went on to direct at least two more overtly punk movies: SID AND NANCY (1986) and STRAIGHT TO HELL (1987) although the punk sensibility is present in most of his work.

Punk robbery
Don't open the trunk!  Alex Cox's nod to Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
While Cox's love for the punk scene and its US equivalent is plain enough, his contempt for other aspects of US life and culture is equally obvious.  The generic branded goods in the stores point to an almost blind consumerism and Otto's parents' zombie-like consumption of moronic TV is funny and dispiriting at the same time.  The government, in the form of hordes of Federal agents, is shown to be duplicitous, incompetent and utterly unconcerned about the welfare of its citizens.  It's a pretty scathing depiction of modern America and one which he made perhaps even more explicit in WALKER (1987), which effectively ended his Hollywood career.

Mom and Dad ...

... and the US government
The cast reads like a who's who of delirious cinema.  Apart from Emilio Estevez (who's actually not bad as Otto), there's Harry Dean Stanton who has appeared in more delirious films than you or I have had hot dinners; there's Tracey Walter, as the spaced out mechanic Miller, who has made a career out of playing oddballs, misfits and cowards; and there's Vonetta McGee, as the no-bullshit Marlene, who was in a number of blaxploitation movies in the 1970s and also appeared in one of Alex Cox's favourite films THE BIG SILENCE (1968), a Sergio Corbucci spaghetti western which got its first British TV screening on, yep, "Moviedrome".

Miller explains his philosophy to Otto


  1. Still one of my favourite films, for entertainment. (not mind-improving or 'worthy') but good fun and well put together.

  2. Yeah it's a goodie alright. There have actually been a couple of semi-official sequels. Apparently the rights to the name and characters are jointly owned by Cox and Universal and neither can make a direct sequel without the consent of the other. So, because the two parties have seemingly irrevocably fallen out, they both went off and did their own thing. There is REPO MEN, which Universal made, and REPO CHICK which Cox made. The former is a relatively big budget Jude Law movie, and the other is a micro-budget thing which has a few of the original supporting cast in unrelated roles. I've got both but not watched them yet. Watch this space!

  3. Many thanks for highlighting a great film, Dan. I'm a huge fan of this. It spills out all over the place. The generic product names were reflected in PiL's Album/Cassette/Compact Disc, I think most of the Repo characters are named after US brands of beer, the 'John Wayne was a f*g' speech still upsets conservative America, and Sy Richardson (who appeared in Cox's first four films) is terrific. Shame the soundtrack's theme tune had Iggy's vocal on it on the cd as I prefer the instrumental used in the film. Cox's Moviedrome intro to Witchfinder General is hilarious. I have Repo Men to watch (it might be worth your while checking out Repo! The Genetic Opera on that front too)

  4. The remarkable thing about Alex Cox is not that his Hollywood career was so short but that he had one at all. I'm struggling to think of any other Marxist US movies. I shall look forward to a debrief from you about REPO MEN. As far as I know, REPO CHICK is totally green-screened with backgrounds added digitally afterwards. And I'm not talking STAR WARS standard, naturally. From what little I've seen of it, it looks even more homemade than REPO MAN does. That's where being very left wing gets you in the film business, sadly.