revisited – ‘repo man’ (1984)

There’s a reason why Repo Man scored a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes; it’s the prototypical cult film of 1980s cinema that possesses a necessary cynicism. Almost every film critic agrees that this film depicted a subculture of L.A. hardcore punk intertwined with science fiction to an accurate degree of portrayal, considering the level of greed that was occurring during the Presidential reign of Ronald Reagan in 1984, Los Angeles. This film accurately represents the LA of the 1980s – a decade contemporary LA yearningly stays inside of. The director, Alex Cox, captures the purple night sky of Los Angeles smog in conjunction with the crime and grime of its day with utmost precision, making the modern-day viewer who revisits this film made almost 40 years ago, realize that the vibe and landscape of LA isn’t that much different now, than what we see in this picture. Repo Man brilliant touches on a wide scope of different genre elements without emphasizing on it, or letting it take over the movie. It has a backdrop of science fiction, leaving an aura of Alien invasion as short sequences of outer world phenomenon occur on-screen, mystifying the viewer. The film evokes a post-apocalyptic feeling without having a catastrophe occur. In essence, it’s the vibe of Los Angeles as the city of angels that Alex Cox encapsulates in this motion picture. The terrifying occupation of vehicle repossession is interweaved with liquor store hold ups and criminal activity, in addition to the ever-present Mexican/American presence of LA with the Rodriguez brothers – two Latino car thieves responsible for 30 thefts, also an pursuit of the film’s prized possession, a mysterious Chevrolet Malibu.

Despite the crime and apocalyptic feeling, Repo Man isn’t a film about scarcity and endangerment, but more so about growth and opportunity. A young suburban punk from Huntington Beach named Otto (Emilio Estevez) despises the pyramid hierarchy of his job at a supermarket to the degree of violently quitting with a grand exit. Emilio Estevez portrays the character of Otto with the perfect expression of dreariness in conjunction with an aimless ambition to succeed in life. Otto is almost oblivious in the sense that he’s unmindful, but aware enough to figure things out without being looked at as an ignorant punk. Otto quits his job and loses his punk thief girlfriend to an acquaintance of his that just got out of jail. Coincidentally, his ex-girfriend and this ex-convict end up becoming the grifters who prey upon liquor stores and corner markets of East LA throughout the film. As Otto angrily roams the streets like a bum in broad daylight, his obliviousness gets the best of him when Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), an employee for a car repossession agency, recruits Otto and convinces him with a lie, selling him on driving a random car parallel parked on the street, because it’s his “second” car and he wants to get it out of this bad neighborhood. Otto mindlessly gets in, after negotiating a payment, only to be strangled by the car owner several seconds later, who storms out of his apartment.  

At the repossession agency, he refuses to become a repo man due to his street punk pride point-of-view of these so-called scumbags who go around repossessing cars because the owners are late on monthly payments. But, after Otto learns from his pot-headed parents who are glued to the TV that he isn’t going to be given the $1,000 he was promised, Otto decides to take on a full-time gig with Bud as a newly hired car repossession agent. They begin their adventure by snorting amphetamines and driving around the LA night. The cinematographer Robby Muller (Dead Man) perfectly captures the purple skies of the greater Los Angeles area with its towering illuminated skyscrapers in the background, standing in as giants, evoking a neo-noir Los Angeles that appears to be forsaken.

While Repo Man was in line with similar political science fiction films of the early eighties, such as John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and They Live in addition to James Cameron’s The Terminator, it still managed to implement original ideas that were used in important films, several years after its release. The Macguffin – a term known to be adopted by legendary mystery and suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, is a device implemented throughout a film’s plot to carry the narrative forward. The glowing trunk Macguffin used in Repo Man with the Chevy Malibu Otto and Bud pursue was implemented similarly in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) with the suitcase Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) seek to acquire for their boss Marcellus (Ving Rhames). The flying Chevy Malibu through the night sky of downtown LA like a video game was similar to the flying DeLorean in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II (1989). There’s a scene where Bud shows Otto his apocalypse escape route onto the paved LA river bed with a brief car chase which was heavily reminiscent of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) where the terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) rides on a Harley Davidson with John Connor (Edward Furlong) , as they escape from the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) in a chase down the paved LA river. The fact that Repo Man inspired these sequences in the aforementioned films goes to show why it’s a quintessential cult-classic. These elements clearly inspired Quentin Tarantino, Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron. Even Otto’s unconscious parents who are brainwashed by the TV, are reminiscent of the parents of Marty (Michael J. Fox), George McFly (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) from Back to the Future (1985). The release of Repo Man in 1984 goes to show that it was one major creative step ahead of the aforementioned pieces of cinematic history.

From the opening credits until the ending, we get the vibe of American hardcore punk on the soundtrack with Iggy Pop, Circle Jerks and The Plugz – a Latino punk band from LA. The hardcore punk music plays over bold red titles and a green map of Los Angeles in the opening credits. A police officer gets zapped and disintegrated by a mysterious flash coming from a trunk of a man who’s pulled over as he drives the film’s prized possession, a Chevrolet Malibu that has a bounty of $20,000 with something Alienlike hidden in its trunk. When we meet Otto, we’re given the impression of stone cold, violent, swearing, punk rock young man from the streets of Huntington Beach who has a crucifix earring, but later learn that he’s attempting to do better for himself even though the world around him is filled with crime and chaos. As savage and untamed Otto is, with blatant requests for blowjobs and engaging in car sex in broad daylight, he has an innocence and ignorance that gains him sympathy as a character amid a chaotic world. The famous pink colored LA sunset is captured in the background during magic hour as Otto is inebriated after attending a house party, yelling obscenities when his girlfriend is taken away from him by his acquaintance. Otto, the young man, has a heart, even though he comes off as a nonsensible punk rocker from the streets.

Repo Man is a bizarre cross between a film about a punk who repossesses cars while getting involved criminals on Earth and Alien activity from the outer world. Eerie musical sounds on the originally composed score in conjunction with the popular LA punk music soundtrack sold so many copies, Universal Pictures re-released Repo Man on wide screens throughout the nation, giving it a second run after a disastrous initial week at the box office. Emilio Estevez flat top haircut and ear pierced character suits him. He acts convincingly as the tough kid who learns a lot about himself with a character arc that differs greatly from beginning to end. At first he seems fearless, then discovers his values based on the morals we know he has because of his crucifix earring. There’s a scene where Otto doesn’t fire his gun into a house even while he’s being shot at, because he’s afraid he’ll kill someone innocent. In another scene, Otto has a chance to send his repo team to punish the African/American’s who jumped him after he attempted to repossess their vehicle, but he doesn’t snitch on them, and instead has his co-agents beat up his former boss that fired him from the supermarket. This conveys that Otto holds onto his suburban street values embedded in him from growing up in the ‘hood, even though he knows he deserved to get jumped because he was, in theory, stealing someone’s car, despite the fact the owner wasn’t making payments. Otto decides to have his supermarket boss punished instead, adding a layer to the political elements of this film that the top-down hierarchy of dead end jobs deserve punishment more than people who actually do him bodily harm.

The gunplay in Repo Man is made to intentionally sound like video games with a lot of neon colors in the artificial lighting of its cinematography giving a glow that radiates excitement. The end credits even play in reverse, from top-down as opposed to bottom-up.  Repo Man is an edgy science fiction film with heavy elements of dark-comedy that hilariously plays on cliché’s. Like when Otto is about to give Bud a sentimental speech as he lies in his hospital bed, but it then, immediately interrupted, and gets up and leaves, mid-speech, with in perfect timing.

Repo Man is truly original and one of a kind. Gunplay, car repossession that appears like grand theft auto, public sex, drug use, art shows, Cadillacs, Chevy Malibus, the purple LA night, the grime of the city day, punk rock music and the Latin American influence on LA in conjunction with a subliminal political message, are just a few reasons why this film is a gem. The bad ass role of Otto suits Emilio Estevez in a perfect fit, considering it’s unlike any of his other performances. This character shows audiences a young Emilio Estevez in a different light – a light we’re not accustomed to seeing him under. It reminds us that inside that intellectual mind of his exists a rebellious character who is damn cool. Estevez’s dreary, emotionless expressions and outbursts of laughter amid controversial situations give the film exactly what it needs; a certain calm and cool demeanor amid the chaos of Los Angeles in 1984. Repo Man is a cult film; an art film; an important film that deserves to be revisited.

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