I can’t remember too much about the buzz around this film but I first saw it around 1984 in Glasgow Film Theatre which is a charity-funded place that specialises in art house, independent and foreign language cinema. The place was packed out with punks so I’m guessing it must have got good write-ups in the music press and when you hear the soundtrack you would understand. Iggy Pop, Black Flag and The Circle Jerks all featuring in this film’s soundtrack was a definite draw however the film turned out. As it turned out Alex Cox‘s debut feature is a cult classic, featuring dark humour which is very specifically located in the time it was made. I think it is the best thing that Alex Cox or Emilio Estevez have done.
Otto (Emilio Estevez) is a suburban punk whose sucky life gets even suckier when he gets kicked out of his job then he finds out his parents have given all his college fund away to a TV evangelist and his girlfriend screws his best friend, all in one night. Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) asks him for favour, to drive his “wife’s” car out of the neighbourhood. Back at the repo company car lot Otto discovers he’s been tricked by Bud the repo man into helping him take someone’s car. They offer him a job and after one more night back with his old sucky life Otto takes the job.
Bud takes great pleasure in teaching young Otto about being a repo man and teaches him what he calls the repo man code. After snorting speed with Bud then racing the rival repo men the Rodriguez Brothers in the LA river Otto really thinks being a repo man is just “so intense” Bud replies “The life of a repo man is always intense.” Later when Otto is riding with Lite (Sy Richardson) it’s pretty clear Bud’s rules don’t mean anything to Lite
The film feels like a series of sketches of Otto out with Bud or Lite or on his own, repossessing cars from people who have not been keeping up payments on them. There’s not much in the way of plot except in the form of a crazy scientist J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris ) driving across America to California with something deadly and radioactive the trunk of his car, a ’64 Chevy Malibu, who is being followed a squad of blonde-haired agents led by the one-armed Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes). Dr Parnell had been stopped by a motorcycle highway patrol cop who was warned not to look in the trunk and he looked in trunk and vanished with flash of light and a scream, leaving just a pair of smoking boots behind. Rogersz explains to the sheriff, “It happens sometimes, people just explode. Natural causes.”
Otto comes across this plotline when he sees a young woman Leila (Olivia Barash) running down the street, so he hits on her and offers her a lift. She is hiding from the blonde-haired agents and tells Otto she is part of group who are trying tell the world the truth about aliens and they have a scientist (Parnell) who has smuggled the bodies of dead aliens out of a secret research base in New Mexico. She shows Otto picture of them but they look stupid and not very convincing (apparently they are water-filled condoms wearing grass-skirts). They get to headquarters of her group, the United Fruitcake Outlet. As Leila is about to leave Otto acts like a dick which causes Leila to change her mind and they get back in the car and have sex.
Back at the repo company they get word in about a bounty of $20,000 on a ’64 Chevy Malibu, a lot of money for such an old piece of junk. Soon all the repo men in LA are on the look out for the car.
Running through the film on a crime spree are Otto’s former pals Duke (Dick Rude) and Archie (Miguel Sandoval) and his ex-girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin). Everywhere that Bud and Otto go to buy beer is being robbed or has just been robbed by them. Duke’s rallying cry is “let’s do some crimes.” and Archie keeps singing the tune of Ride of the Valkyries as they run from one crime to the next
Otto finds himself in weird conversations with various kooks. Miller (Tracey Walter) works at the repo company where his only job seems to be tending a barrel of fire. As Otto burns rubbish from one of cars he lifted, Miller tell him his theory of UFOs, alien abductions, time machines and plates of shrimp. That conversation is weird enough but later Otto finds himself in the passenger seat of the Chevy Malibu while Dr Parnell raves about the lies told about the dangers of radiation and how liberating lobotomies are.
This film is just so full of great moments, funny characters and quotable lines. There are a few little sly bits of cultural commentary woven into the film too. Otto’s parents are clearly a pair of hippy stoners yet they’re watching a right-wing televangelist and giving him all their money. Punks gets it too from the sheer idiocy of Duke and his crime gang and especially Duke’s last words. This film really seems to divide opinion and some just don’t get it. I think I ‘m supposed to say something broadly insulting, a sort of put down of those don’t think Repo Man is hilarious but I don’t think I need to since not being able to enjoy the humour in this film is a pretty harsh punishment in itself and there is no reason to mock the afflicted.