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A cult classic with a mile-wide anti-authoritarian streak, Repo Man (1984) is a violent black comedy and one of the first and best “punk movies” ever made. Repo Man was writer-director Alex Cox’s first film, and it’s bursting at the seams with his ideas about nearly everything. It’s an endearingly low-budget funhouse look at 1980s Los Angeles, overflowing with running jokes, eternally quotable one-liners, and satirical barbs at the banality of Reagan’s America.
Teen punk Otto (Emilio Estevez) is broke and unemployed when he gets duped by grizzled repo man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton at his very best) into helping him repossess a car. While stealing cars from poor people initially disgusts him, Otto quickly gets hooked on the adrenaline rush, as well as the regular amphetamine usage that the job requires. Soon, Otto and the other repo men get involved in a shadowy conspiracy involving a radioactive Chevy Malibu. From then on the film is a madcap series of coincidences as repo men, rival car thieves, the FBI, and Otto’s old punk buddies all chase after the glowing Chevy.
Cox is a well-known B-movie aficionado, and he filled Repo Man with fantastic, underused character actors, many of whom give their most memorable performances here. Besides Stanton’s speed-freak philosopher, Tracy Walter as the zen mechanic/possible acid casualty Miller gets the biggest share of scene-stealing moments. Hardly a hero, Otto is maybe the least interesting character of the film: a naive lout who goes from slam-dancing to wearing a tie and breaking into cars without ever thinking about it.
Apart from being a wildly inventive, incredibly funny film, Repo Man’s place as a cult classic was really cemented by the fact that it’s one of the first movies to deal with punk rock with any legitimacy. Punks had previously been portrayed on-screen mostly as cartoon villains. While Repo Man also has its fair share of cartoon punk villains, the rest of the characters are absurd caricatures, too. The film is full of authentic LA punks, a solid soundtrack with a theme song by Iggy Pop, and an anarchic worldview that feels truly authentic. Thirty-six years later, it’s still a wild ride; but, as Harry Dean said, “repo man is always intense.”
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