Ever wondered what happened to that radioactive Pandora’s box that suddenly transformed Kiss Me Deadly (1955) from a terse, sordid, ultra-stylized little noir into batshit sci-fi apocalypse in the film’s final, unforgettable moments? Turns out it wound up in the trunk of a 1964 Chevy Malibu, driven by a rather peculiar scientist (Fox Harris) with only half a pair of sunglasses, some three decades later. Only now the hell-fiery whatsit has turned into a cache of alien corpses—or do I have it wrong? We first spot its/their emerald glow when said scientist is stopped by a ill-fated highway patrolman somewhere in Southern California, perhaps not too far from Kiss Me Deadly’s exploded beach, in the opening scenes of Repo Man (1984), British writer/director Alex Cox’s truly inspired, tonally singular, frequently hilarious, genre-gobbling feature debut.
What the hell is wrong with me that I hadn’t seen Repo Man before now? I was a little kid when it came out, but its cult status burgeoned rapidly in the months and years following its initial theatrical release. I remember it so often being showcased in the suburban Calgary video stores I would frequent. I somehow missed the appeal. Go figure. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
A film riddled with elaborate conspiracies, boggling cosmologies, rarely seen Los Angeles geographies, old cars and a trove of So-Cal hardcore soon-to-be classics, it follows one Otto (Emilio Estevez), a blank slate of a punk rocker from Huntington Beach who can’t get laid and can’t hold a stupid job long enough to save up any money, while his baby boomer burnout parents give all the family savings to some caffeinated televangelist who insists that God wants their money. Otto impulsively quits his gig stocking generic food items at the local grocery, making a show of shoving a fellow clerk into a pyramid of cans with the same oddball air of faux-aggression he applies to dumping a can of beer all over the floor of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, the small automobile repossession agency where he will soon find gainful employment legally stealing people’s cars, and getting chased and attacked by angry drivers who neglect to make their payments. Otto likes the money and he likes the thrills. He even seems to like his mentor, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the senior agent who manages to recruit Otto without Otto’s knowing. The job lives up to Bud’s promise, which happens to be one of this imminently quotable film’s many quotable—if often misquoted—lines: “Repo Man’s always intense.”
But is Repo Man intense? More like audacious, spastically inventive and wildly entertaining, an underground comic come to life, with an absurdly economical final act in which our hero is captured and escapes, is captured and escapes and is captured and escapes in short shrift. The film’s parade of memorable supporting characters help streamline what might otherwise seem a narrative derailed by detours: Sy Richardson’s Lite, Dick Rude’s Duke, Del Zamora and Eddie Velez’s Rodrqiguez brothers, and most especially Tracey Walter’s Miller, who outrages the other repo men with claims of John Wayne’s homosexuality and blows Otto’s mind with a philosophy centered around the universe’s “lattice of coincidence.” But Stanton is the film’s enigmatic and weary center and key emblem, a figure of bizarre resilience in Regan-era America. It remains one of this great character actor’s small handful of larger roles. It’s also probably still the most interesting use of Estevez, who is often seen in his bright white underpants. And it remains the best and most successful thing Cox has yet managed in an industry that’s never given him as big a break.