Repo Man (United States, 1984)

March 28, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Repo Man Poster

Over the years since its March 1984 release, Alex Cox’s debut feature, Repo Man, has developed a reputation as a “cult classic.” Unlike many other films to claim that badge, this one deserves it. Largely dismissed by mainstream audiences during its theatrical run, the movie has developed a devoted following over the years. Repo Man’s scathing satirical tone and oddball comedic aspects made it a hard sell for those expecting something in the science fiction/horror vein. Those elements, however, have grown in acceptance as cultural cynicism has developed deeper roots. Repo Man was ahead of its time in 1984.

The trap is watching Repo Man with an expectation that it’s going to deliver anything resembling a conventional narrative. Its purpose isn’t to tell a story but to satirize pretty much anything that meant anything in the mid-1980s, including Reagan’s brand of conservatism, bad science fiction, consumerism, and UFO-mania. It is relentlessly unconventional – it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that aspects of Repo Man (or at least director Cox’s approach) spread their tendrils of influence to up-and-coming filmmakers from the late 1980s and 1990s like (among others) the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.

Repo Man has a storyline, although dwelling overmuch on the details isn’t a worthy endeavor. Like many comedies, it doesn’t stand up to more than cursory consideration. The main narrative, which transpires in the down-and-out neighborhoods of Los Angeles, follows Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) as he embarks on a career as an automobile repossessor under the tutelage of Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) and Lite (Sy Richardson), two veterans of the job who will do almost anything to get a car and its associated bounty. Another man, Miller (Tracey Walter), who also works at the “Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation,” provides Otto with words of warning.

On the side, Otto becomes involved with Leila (Olivia Barash), a spaceship fanatic who works at the United Fruitcake Outlet. Through Leila, Otto learns about a mysterious 1964 Chevrolet Malibu that allegedly has radioactive aliens in the trunk. A bounty of $25,000 has been posted for the Chevy so all the repo men are eager to cash in. They’re not the only ones, however. A group of government-type agents are also after the car as is its previous driver, J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris). Even Otto’s ex-girlfriend, Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin), and his former best friend, Duke (Dick Rude), get in on the act when they’re not robbing convenience stores.

Those expecting anything serious to come out of this mess will be disappointed. The focus is on low-key comedy and satire. The movie is replete with recurring jokes like one that involves generic food labels. (I won’t talk about the others – they’re more amusing if discovered independently than if described.) Improvisation was encouraged on the set and any character development that occurs appears to have happened mostly by accident. The story transpires within the punk rock scene, an area Cox would explore more fully in his next film, Sid and Nancy (about Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen). Repo Man’s title track was composed and performed by Iggy Pop.

Cox’s penchant for a tongue-in-cheek approach became evident when, after a middling theatrical run, it came time to show the movie on television. Faced by censors at the ready to cut-and-slash the movie due (primarily) to its frequent profanity, Cox decided to overdub all the bad words with bizarre phrases that earned the film a new legion of fans. Nearly four decades later, there are those who prefer to watch the TV cut over the theatrical one because of this added (albeit dubious) charm.

Repo Man doesn’t feature any A-list stars. The film’s biggest name, Emilio Estevez, wasn’t well-known at the time, except perhaps as one of the sons of Martin Sheen (the resemblance to a young Sheen is uncanny). Although Estevez attracted attention in 1983’s The Outsiders, his biggest films – The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, Stakeout, and Young Guns – were in the immediate future (all were released between 1985 and 1988). The actor shows flashes of the charisma that would make him a future star but he rarely steals the spotlight. The buddy chemistry between him and reliable veteran character actor (and David Lynch favorite) Harry Dean Stanton (who has never given a bad performance despite appearing in numerous bad movies) is low-key.

Critics don’t always cheer for movies as offbeat as Repo Man. It seems there are always those who don’t “get it.” In 1984, however, many reviews praised the film as a breath of fresh air. Roger Ebert summed it up nicely: “Repo Man is one of those movies that slips through the cracks and gives us all a little weirdo fun… This is the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn't made from any known formula and doesn't follow the rules.”

Repo Man accrued a fan base as a result of its devil-may-care, try-anything approach. Whether it works as a traditional motion picture is up for debate. However, it’s short enough (about 90 minutes) that it never overstays its welcome and is generally a fun, wild ride, even though it may at times be difficult to figure out where the journey began and where, as the 1964 Chevy leaves the streets like Doc’s DeLorean in Back to the Future, it ends.

Repo Man (United States, 1984)

Director: Alex Cox
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Jennifer Balgobin, Dick Rude
Home Release Date: 2022-03-28
Screenplay: Alex Cox
Cinematography: Robby Muller
Music: Steven Hufsteter, Humberto Larriva
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 1984-03-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Comedy/Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1