Repo Man is one of those movies that’s hard to categorize. Is it sci-fi, comedy, or some uniquely punk rock-flavored combination of the two? It could be seen as a biting satire of disenfranchised youth caught in recession-era Los Angeles. Repo Man is a film that does what it wants, taking the viewer down an unexpected path. Now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, Repo Man still resonates with its dryly comic look at a society that has lost its soul.
Repo Man opens with a jolt. A cop is zapped out of existence by a mysterious glowing light in the trunk of a car he has just pulled over. The car drives away, leaving behind only a pair of boots smoldering on the side of the street. We don’t know what was producing the glow, or where the car is going. All we know is that the driver seemed to be a little off-kilter. We don’t get to spend a lot of time thinking about it because as soon as the car is out of sight, it’s out of mind as well. Instead we switch to the story of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a young grocery store clerk all decked out in punk gear. In typical punk fashion, Otto is not too happy with anything in his life. He quickly loses his job, his girlfriend cheats on him, and he discovers his parents have donated his college fund to a church that shills for money on TV.
While wandering the streets in total disgust, Otto happens upon Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) and is unwittingly dragged into the world of automobile repossession. At first Otto is disgusted by the prospect of becoming a repo man, since he’s spent his youth fighting “the man.” He’s not too happy about becoming a part of the system he’s been rebelling against. However, Bud is the only one who’s made him feel like he’s worth something, so he joins the team. The world Otto lives in is an “every man for himself” kind of society, where the dollar is king.
The problem is no one seems to have any money. Everything from beer to breakfast cereal is in generic, white label packaging. Otto’s friends have turned to ripping off convenience stores just to make a few bucks. No one really seems to care about anything. Otto’s parents sit blankly in front of the television as they tell Otto there is no money for college. His friends casually say to each other “Let’s go commit those crimes,” as if they were going out for pizza. Repo Man is full of dry humor that exemplifies the apathetic society portrayed in writer-director Alex Cox’s vision. Bud goes about his job as a repo man with the seriousness of a military general. He won’t break the rigid rules he has set for himself, believing his own moral code makes him a better person.
On the other hand, Otto is a bit lost in the world. He ignores Bud’s advice, becoming more obsessed with making a quick buck any way he can. He’s aimless until he happens upon Leila (Olivia Barash), a young woman convinced there’s a government cover-up of alien visitors. Soon after, a Chevy Malibu is wanted by the feds for a rather large bounty. Finally the mysterious vehicle from the beginning comes back into play. Personally, I didn’t find the sci-fi elements of Repo Man all that satisfying. I enjoy the atmosphere of the film, the portrayal of the slightly dystopian society, and the performances of Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, but the supernatural element feels unnecessary to me. It doesn’t really play into the social commentary. It feels like more of a distraction than an essential plot element.
What works best about Repo Man is that is creates a kind of alternate reality. It’s one possible outcome of a materialistic society, where people’s quest for more has left them in debt. The irony being that ultimately everyone ends up with nothing. Of course this type of society is dependent on everyone being shallow money-hungry do-nothings. It assumes that both money and despair sap real emotions, which is fortunately not reality. Repo Man is not especially deep, but it is a fun and quirky piece of entertainment.
The Criterion Blu-ray is presented in a MPEG 4 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer framed at 1.78:1. I was somewhat surprised by the clarity and definition of the picture, especially since so many mid-‘80s low budget films have a particularly dated look. Given that this is one of those, made nearly 30 years ago, I was expecting a more low-fi look. Instead the detail is very sharp. Colors are rich and skin tones look natural. The sound is presented as a lossless LPCM mono soundtrack that is adequate for the presentation. The dialogue is clear and easy to understand. The numerous punk rock music cues are well blended with the other audio elements.
There are some great special features included in this set, including an alternate TV version of the film that was edited by director Alex Cox. Usually a TV version wouldn’t necessarily be of special interest, but this version, framed at 1.33:1, includes alternate takes which makes it an interesting companion to the theatrical cut. Also included are several featurettes that have interviews with Cox, several actors from the film, and musicians Keith Morris and Iggy Pop (who contributed to the soundtrack).
One of the most interesting features is “The Missing Scenes,” in which Cox and executive producer Michael Nesmith, along with Samuel Cohen (the inventor of the neutron bomb) discuss scenes that were deleted from the film. The commentary (featuring Cox and several other participants), recorded in 1999 for a previous DVD release, is ported over for this edition. The substantial Blu-ray booklet is packed with great tidbits, including a number of essays and material written by Alex Cox himself.