Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez), a young punk living in Los Angeles, gets fired from his mind-numbing job as a supermarket clerk, only to discover that his stoner, aging hippie parents have donated the money they promised him for finishing school to a colourful televangelist. Broke and wandering the streets, Otto falls in with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a hardened repossession agent (or ‘repo man’) who offers Otto a job at the small car repo agency he works for. Openly scornful and repulsed by the job at first, Otto is quickly seduced by the cash, the drugs, the pressurised fast pace, and the thrill of a successful repo. His life takes another unexpected detour into the bizarre when he picks-up a new waver and UFO obsessive named Leila (Olivier Barash), who tells Otto about a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu on its way up from New Mexico, which reportedly contains two dead but still dangerous space-aliens in its trunk. Initially skeptical at first, a $20,000.00 reward offered for the Malibu convinces Otto that Leila is onto something, and the pair soon find themselves competing with each other, as well as government agents and a gang of Mexican car thieves, as they try to locate and take ownership of the Malibu, which is being driven around Los Angeles with a crazed scientist behind the wheel.
One of the genuine cult movies of the 1980s, Repo Man successfully fused indie, arthouse and exploitation sensibilities with a punk rock aesthetic. Having not viewed the film in over twenty years, I was curious to see how it had aged, and was happily surprised that it has held up so well. Of course, the glue which holds everything together in this film is the great performance from Harry Dean Stanton, one of the best American character actors of the past forty years who is given a rare turn at a leading role here. With his weathered face, cheap suit and manic, drug-fuelled persona, Stanton’s Bud helps give Repo Man a nice film noir edge, as do the seedy, backstreet LA locations. There is a great interaction between Stanton and Emilio Estevez (one of the more maligned members of the 1980s ‘Brat Pack’, whose work has been consistently more interesting and creative than his more famous, gossip magazine magnet younger brother, Charlie Sheen), and the roster of oddball supporting actors which Cox has assembled really help give the film genuine layers of character depth. Perhaps the one aspect of the film which hasn’t aged well is the whole alien conspiracy angle, which may have pre-dated The X-Files but to me detracts from the tone of the film, which I feel would have worked better had it been anchored more in the real world.
Much like American Graffitti a decade earlier, much of the success of Repo Man was due to its soundtrack, which featured a line-up of classic punk rock tracks from the likes of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Iggy Pop, Suicidal Tendencies and The Plugz. The collection of tracks selected reflects Cox’s genuine understanding and appreciation of the punk scene, and it’s the soundtrack which continues to play a major role in the film’s continued popularity and cult legacy (while Cox of course would go on to explore the punk scene more fully in Sid and Nancy).