"The more you drive, the less intelligent you are."
Making his feature film debut, Alex Cox grapples with that age-old question of whether you can make a movie with an unruly teen punk, a pair of dead aliens in the trunk of a car, and a band of rowdy repo agents, and still be entertaining. In the wildly outlandish 'Repo Man' from 1984, the answer is a conclusive "YES!" And the near-visionary sci-fi fantasy comedy even succeeds in having audiences beg for more — more of the quasi-philosophical jabs at modernity, more of the incisive insights at life's purposeless existence, and more of its zany abandonment for logical and narrative rationality. None of what is seen in this independent low-budget production makes much sense, yet it's satisfying and fulfilling, as if we, too, can fly through skies of Downtown Los Angeles in a 1964 Chevy Malibu.
The story, which was also conceived by Cox, wrestles with a variety of social themes and satirical absurdities, none of which are necessarily related but all of which somehow function as integral components of the film's overall effect. Tracy Walter's character sums it up nicely in an oddly poignant conversation about random coincidences being part of a cosmic unconsciousness. Oh, and that aliens are in fact creatures from our future traveling into the past, inadvertently causing it and creating a feeling of predestination. It's completely bonkers on the surface, but it's these sorts of surreal, off-the-wall comments which have me bursting with laughter while also making me ponder their possibilities. 'Repo Man' is a pointless comedy with a point, a meaningful story about meaninglessness, a nonsensical tale that makes quite a bit of sense. (Well, enough of that, then.)
Walter's lot mechanic, Miller, is having this chat with the agency's newest recruit, Otto (Emilio Estevez), who's really starting to love his latest career choice. The plot mostly centers on the young rebellious teen, providing the film with a dark coming-of-age angle that isn't immediately apparent. Living with his hippie parents who've succumbed to a sense of complacency and televangelism, he's growing disillusioned with the punk-rock lifestyle and surrounded by banality, as seen with endless placement of generic products. It's absolutely brilliant that the kid finds relief and a strange sort of awakening for life working as a repo man. It's ironic also that the job would invigorate in him the energetic, thrilling, and chaotic ideals punk failed to fulfill.
Serving as Otto's mentor is the always thrilling character actor Harry Dean Stanton. As Bud, a hardened and cynically embittered repo man who initially hired the kid, he offers a brutally realistic view of the world. Going in line with the film's outrageous nature, however, the guy is neither rooted in reality. Yet, much like Miller, the character shares many of his unusual thoughts on modernity with his young apprentice, though some are hilarious contradictions. ("I don't want no commies in my car. No Christians either.") As demeaning, unrewarding and often scorned by most as the job may be, Bud and his team function as the guardians of unsympathetic capitalism, as the crux and necessity of Reagan economics with endless credit masking mountains of disparity.
A mix of offbeat absurdity and quirky observations, 'Repo Man' is a social satire that engages with an unconventionally crass but captivating style rarely seen in films, especially major studio productions. Alex Cox's direction is not particularly noteworthy or standout, but he has his moments which are inspiring and charismatic. Although he continues to make micro-features today, his best years are without doubt the 1980s, following this impressive debut with punk biopic 'Sid & Nancy,' the wildly-entertaining Spaghetti Western pastiche 'Straight to Hell,' and the intentionally anachronistic 'Walker.' Looking back, 'Repo Man' is surely a warning of things to come from Cox's imagination of irrationality, and this eccentric film remains just as incisively intelligent nearly thirty years later.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Alex Cox's 'Repo Man' comes by way of The Criterion Collection (spine #654). The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside a gatefold plastic tray that comes with a side-sliding slipcover. The punk-infused design is intentionally busy and garish with lots of green and original artwork. Also included is a 68-page booklet with more artwork and a wealth of information. It features an insightful essay entitled "A Lattice of Coincidence" by artist, novelist and culture critic Sam McPheeters and a rather intriguing interview with real-life L.A. repo man Mark Lewis. Also, the book borrows from the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition the notes and original drawings personally collected by Alex Cox, along with a reprint of the film's proposal. There are no trailers before being greeted by the standard menu options and an animated screen.
According to the accompanying booklet, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was made from the original camera negative scanned at 2k resolution and approved by Alex Cox. With little else to go on, this has me thinking it's the same transfer personally supervised by Cox for last year's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release in the UK. When comparing the two releases, they appear identical with the only negligible difference between them being the contrast level, making this one a just a tad darker. This is not a bad thing since it looks fantastic nonetheless and will stand as the definitive version for this cult favorite along with its UK counterpart.
Presented in Cox's preferred 1.78:1 image, the picture is awash with a thin veil of film grain throughout, giving it an attractive and appreciable cinematic quality. Definition and clarity for a nearly thirty-year-old movie shot on a very small budget is excellent, showing great textures in facial complexions. Daylight sequences are most impressive with clothing, cars and the architecture of Los Angeles' business district displaying clean, distinct lines that are often quite striking. Aside from a couple scenes with slightly below average resolution, the movie is sharp and detailed for its age and production history with terrific shadow details in the many nighttime sequences. Contrast and brightness are very well-balanced with clean, bright whites and accurate, deep blacks. Colors receive a nice boost and are boldly rendered, particularly in the softer pastel hues.
Overall, this is a brilliant and highly satisfying high-def presentation that feels animated and energetic but loses none of the rough and gritty nature of Robby Müller's photography. For long-time fans of the sci-fi comedy, this is significant improvement to previous home video editions and a must-own.
According to the booklet, the original 35mm DME magnetic soundtrack was used for this uncompressed PCM mono track, and the results, much like the video, are simply fantastic for this much-beloved cult classic.
Also like the video, the lossless mix is practically identical to its Master of Cinema counterpart in the U.K. With exceptional acoustical presence perfectly centered in the middle of the screen, imaging manages to feel broad and expansive from beginning to end. Dialogue is crystal-clear and precise while dynamic range is surprisingly extensive, nicely differentiating a variety of loud, screeching noises from the mid-level sounds. There's also an ample amount of mid-bass that's robust for a movie of this vintage, with the majority of this deep extension surrounding the Chevy Malibu. It's enough to give the original design a good deal of appreciable weight, especially with all the great music playing in the background, making this a notable and memorable high-rez soundtrack for fans to enjoy.
Writer and director Alex Cox made his feature-length debut with 1984's 'Repo Man,' a social satire on the banality of modernity starring Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez. The bizarre sci-fi/fantasy comedy blends punk rock, dead aliens, government conspiracies, and repo men in a hilariously weird but incisively clever tale. This Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection arrives with an excellent audio/video presentation. Many of the same supplements are ported over from previous home video releases, but with a few new additions to the collection. This is highly recommended and a must-own for fans and cult enthusiasts.