Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: March 2, 1984
Directed by: Alex Cox
Genre: Comedy / Crime / Sci-Fi
Alex Cox’s 1984 classic “Repo Men” is a rare cinematic animal. From the year of its release through the present, the movie has received almost unanimous acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Professional film critics as diverse in tastes as Roger Ebert, Dave Kehr and Vincent Canby gave the movie positive reviews, and it consistently maintains high ratings on review sites like Rotten Tomatoes. However, in spite of its nearly universal appeal, “Repo Man” is more likely to be listed among the ranks of cult classics rather than timeless cinema.
The film opens in the Mojave Desert outside of Los Angeles. A police officer stops a Chevy Malibu that is driving erratically, and despite the driver’s warnings to the contrary, the officer takes a look in the vehicle’s trunk. The officer is instantly vaporized by a blinding white flash of light, and the driver continues towards Los Angeles as if nothing happened.
At the heart of the film is the question of what is in the trunk of the Chevy Malibu. A secret society in Los Angeles is convinced that it’s the corpse of an alien being smuggled out of Roswell, but the driver himself later claims to be Dr. J. Frank Parnell, one of the inventors of the neutron bomb. However, by the time Parnell gets a chance to speak, it’s clear that his judgment is far from sound, and it’s possible that nothing he says should be trusted. All that is known for sure about the mysterious contents of the Malibu’s trunk is that it instantly kills anyone who looks at it, and it seems to cause changes to the vehicle itself.
This is the supernatural device at the heart of “Repo Men,” but the film is more than just a science fiction thriller. The main character is Otto, the newest employee of an automobile repossession agency. Bored, listless and dispossessed, Otto splits his time between hanging out with his suburban punk rocker friends and learning the ropes from the older employees at his new job, but he is eventually drawn into the hunt for the missing Chevy Malibu.
Played by Emilio Estevez, Otto is so disconnected at times that nothing really seems to be getting through to him. At times, it seems like his flat line reading is merely a product of bad acting, but it is a mistake to assume that a poor performance is to blame. Otto is simply so ground down by conformity, boredom and a lack of hope for the future that nothing, not even a flying Chevy Malibu, can get much of a reaction out of him.
This low-key line delivery often serves to obscure how funny a lot of the lines in “Repo Men” are. The movie is full of clever exchanges between characters struggling to find some meaning in their lives by endlessly trying out new forms of half-baked mysticism or empty philosophies that they barely understand.
In terms of looks, “Repo Men” is a blend of direct-to-video grunge and studio film slickness. Despite being a major studio release, the movie manages to maintain all the charm of a low-budget indie film made as a labor of love. This does not, however, mean that “Repo Men” looks cheap. In fact, the production values are quite high, and it’s competent in the areas of direction, cinematography, sound and other technical aspects.
The movie owes its grimy look and punk sensibilities to director Alex Cox. Cox, who also made “Sid and Nancy” in 1986, is a genuine veteran of the punk scene. He understands better than most people how to make the subculture look alluring in its trashiness without mythologizing it. “Repo Men” does not laugh at its punk hero as much as it laughs at the Reaganites who surround him, but it still laughs at him from time to time.
The movie’s punk roots are perhaps most noticeable in its soundtrack. The movie contains songs from Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies, and the “godfather of punk,” Iggy Pop, even contributed a brand new song to play over the opening credits.
“Repo Men” manages to be a lot of things throughout its relatively brief running time, but it’s never boring. Even though the film is as much about driving around, talking and discussing the basics of repossessing cars as it is a race to find a deadly Chevy Malibu, memorable characters and a strong sense of place and theme help it pull together to create a uniquely entertaining whole.
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