Monday, July 30, 2018

Repo Man (1984) Review

What is a cult film?  By definition, a cult film refers to any picture not considered a success upon release that goes on to develop a following in the years to come.  Most of the time, such films are of poor quality, but their flaws are what make the movie enjoyable.  Common examples of "So bad, it's good" films are The Room, Troll 2, and Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Other times, however, a cult movie can be a film that's legitimately good, but its subject matter and style stands it apart from other titles out there.  Repo Man is one of those movies.  A bizarre mixture of science-fiction, comedy, social satire, and discussions centered around plates of shrimp, Repo Man, directed by Alex Cox, is arguably one of the essential cult classics.

Otto (Emilio Estevez) is a down-on-his-luck punk teen.  Having just been fired from his job at the grocery store, Otto spends hims time hanging out with his punk friends and avoiding his stoner parents.  While walking down the street, a man (Harry Dean Stanton) pulls up near Otto and offers him cash in exchange for driving his wife's car, which is parked up the street.  As it turns out, the vehicle actually belongs to a Hispanic family, and the man, Bud, is a repo man.  The agency he works for offers Otto a job, which he accepts.  Under the guidance of Bud, Otto learns about the wild job that is a repo man.  Things are going good for Otto until the Helping Hand agency receives word of a $20,000 bounty for a 1964 Chevy Malibu.

Initially, the company ignores the bounty, thinking the high price is only because the car is stashed with drugs; in actuality, the trunk of the car is loaded with the remains of aliens that are rapidly decaying, and anyone foolish enough to open the trunk is immediately vaporized.  After Otto meets Leila (Olivia Barash), who works for an organization searching for the Malibu, he gets caught up in a crazy adventure where various faction, including the government and rival repo companies, are searching for the car, each for different reasons.

"I'll pay you a hundred bucks to star in Loaded Weapon 1,
how does that sound?"

Repo Man is odd yet mesmerizingly unique.  The plot is threadbare but the characters are memorable, if only for their eccentric personalities, and the movie is noticeably low-budget, more on that later, but look past the story-telling problems and you have a surprisingly entertaining movie.  The film's cast is enjoyable, with the standouts being Otto, Bud, and Miller.  When we first meet Otto, he's nothing more than a rebellious kid, if only because his parents are deadbeats who care more about throwing money away to con-artist televangelists than supporting their son, but after landing the job at the repo agency, Otto begins to change.  Instead of wearing sleeveless shirts, he's wearing business suits, and he acts less like a smartass, but hasn't dropped it entirely.

Guiding Otto through his job is Bud.  Harry Dean Stanton is amazing, playing a character who teaches our hero how to repossess cars without causing much trouble.  At the same time, though, he's also letting Otto snort cocaine and drink beer, so like Otto, he's not perfect.  Similar to Otto, Bud goes through his own character arc.  As the film progresses and the agency is caught up in the hunt for the Malibu, he starts going against the Repo Code he taught Otto; for example, he starts carrying a pistol around, much like another repo man, Lite (Sy Richardson), who keeps a pistol in case things heat up, but it only fires blanks.  Unfortunately, his change in attitude gets him critically wounded late in the movie and shot by the police during the climax.

Many of the characters in Repo Man go through their own arcs, especially Leila.  At first, she's actively avoiding the government agents while hunting for the Malibu, but after she's kidnapped, Leila turns against Otto and others in favor of helping the government for her own personal gain.  One person who doesn't change much at all during the movie is Miller.  Miller is the Helping Hand agency's mechanic, and when he's not fixing up the cars they bring in, he's spouting off bizarre ramblings that make no sense.  In a way, he represents Repo Man's eccentricity, and he also has some of the best dialogue in the movie, especially one scene where him and Otto how everything in the universe is unified, and we just don't know it.

 Besides offering scenes of people getting vaporized by a glowing Chevy Malibu or Otto and the repo men out on the job, Repo Man has a strong, satirical edge.  The film's comedy is hilarious, if not for the quotable lines of dialogue, with my personal favorite being Miller's revelation that yes, indeed, John Wayne was a fag.  Look past the funny lines and you'll find a film that freely mocks the Reagan-era politics of the 1980's, much so like RoboCop and They Live later on.  The film was shot in Los Angeles, albeit in the city's rundown areas where poverty and crime run rampant, plus all of the food and drinks seen throughout aren't brand items, but instead are generic, plain-white products labeled "Cereal" or "Beer."  Little background details like these subtly comment on how the economic politics of the decade greatly affected how people earned a living.

There's a lot to like about the movie, for sure, but its biggest flaw is its storytelling.  During the first act, Repo Man does a great job at setting up its world and the characters that inhabit it, but the middle section drags due to the lack of a plot, only for the final act to hastily wrap things up.  Although the ending is cool, you can't help but notice the filmmakers might have been at a loss on how to end the movie.  Two other endings were suggested during production, one where Otto joins a group of Latin American revolutionaries in South America, and another where L.A. is annihilated by a nuclear explosion, courtesy of the Chevy Malibu's extraterrestrial contents.

Elements of said endings can be seen in the movie, but the finale that was chosen is surprising yet fitting.  After a hectic chase around L.A., the Malibu ends up at the parking lot of the Helping Hand agency.  The car is glowing green and zapping anyone who gets near it, be it government agents, priests, or average joes.  Everyone's standing around, unsure of what to do, until Miller steps into frame and gets into the car, motioning Otto to join him.  He gets in, the car begins to hover, before taking off into the nighttime sky.  It's fitting that the weirdest character in the movie is the one capable of driving the car.

Given the film's low-budget, the special effects work is kept to a minimum.  Some of it, such as the vaporizations that happen whenever someone opens the Malibu's trunk, look cool, but other shots, such as when the car starts glowing green, look cheap, even by today's standards.  This isn't a big-budget, effects extravaganza, so it's excusable, but one area Repo Man doesn't slack around is its soundtrack.  The soundtrack features numerous punk artists, including Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Iggy Pop, who wrote and performed the film's theme tune, and it fits perfectly with the punk motifs of Repo Man.


Repo Man
 is a one-of-a-kind picture and deserving of its cult classic status.  Much like the punk soundtrack and characters, it doesn't adhere to the traditional standards of film-making, and although its narrative structure is scattershot, to say the least, it makes up for it via memorable characters, great comedy, scathing social satire, and its quirky, frenetic sense of energy.  You'd be remiss for having not seen Repo Man yet, as it's one of those movies which gets better and better on repeated viewings.

Final Score: 9/10

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