The eighties were filled with offbeat movies about a variety of subjects, but science fiction seemed to fill the theaters on a weekly basis.Some big budget films failed to score as predicted and some little anticipated films have scored sequels right up through today. About four years ago, there was a Jude Law vehicle titled Repo Men, that had absolutely nothing to do with the 1984 singular form of the title. The science fiction roots of this story are hard to ignore, but ninety percent of the movie is focused on the ethos surrounding the guys who come and take your car when the payments are behind. The sci/fi stuff exits only to provide a framework for a story about a bunch of sad sack souls, who find ways to make their profession seem noble. Low budget science fiction appears to be a field where former Monkee Mike Nesmith felt comfortable. This was the second feature he had a hand in producing for his own company. His previous venture being “Timerider: The Adventures of Lyle Swann”, a time travel western. I don’t know that he had a big influence on the creative end of this movie, because his music is not anything like the punk aural wall that permeates most of the film. The real reason that this movie is thought of fondly has nothing to do with the science fiction storyline, it is all about the aesthetic of the film. This is a movie made by angry people for angry people. In other words it is “punk perfect”.
Otto is a white suburban kid with fairly clean cut looks, but he has the punk attitude hanging all over him. His friends make the extreme decisions as to hair and lifestyle, he’s just not willing to commit to anything. We know he is a rebel because he gets fired for being late to work and when called on it cusses the boss out. He can’t be a real punk however because when he gets up to get his girl a beer during a roll in the hay, he comes back and finds some other guy doing her. A real punk would have dove in with fists flying, just looking for an excuse to get hit or do some hitting. Otto just grabs his clothes and disgustedly walks away.
At one point a friend starts to make excuses for his crimes, as if he is a victim of politics.
Duke: The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.
Otto: That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me.
Duke: Yeah, but it still hurts.
So even the film makers, as angry punks as they were saw that the attitude was all posing as opposed to real disaffection.
The opening of the movie leaves Otto on the sidelines to begin with. What we see is a Highway Patrol cop, pull over a weaving motorist. When the motorist warns the cop not to look in the trunk, we are immediately told that this is a Sci/fi story.Like most Macguffins, we never get a clear sense of what is in the trunk but there are frequent allusions to aliens and UFOs and time travel. There are several points in the story where government agents are tracking down the vehicle.The girl that Otto picks up turns out to part of a UFO cult that is trying to reveal the government conspiracy. All of that is just background for the car hunt and the Repo guys sharing their grungy philosophies of life.
Two great character actors are featured in “Repo Man” and both get a chance to shine in different ways. Harry Dean Stanton has a cult following and he is a very good actor. He showed up in “The Avengers” a couple of years ago and brought a smile to my face with a single line of dialogue that puts the whole “Hulk” situation into perspective. Here he plays “Bud” the veteran repo man that pulls Otto into the profession. He is willing to lie, and he is sneaky and a drug user, but he does have a code that he follows:
” Never broke into a car, never hotwired a car. Never broke into a truck. ‘I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let the personal contents thereof come to harm’ It’s what I call the Repo Code, kid!”
Later on in a confrontation with a competing repo crew, he takes up weapons and will not be insulted. It is almost a recap of the code that “J.B. Books” from “The Shootist” lives by. Oddly, John Wayne is mentioned in this movie but in a very different context.
Tracey Walter is the other great character in the movie, playing the mechanic and yard manager “Miller”. He doesn’t do any repossessions himself, because he knows that that kind of work is bad for you. Walter is a very recognizable face and his hangdog face and odd voice made him a go to actor for oddball casting. This movie gives him the best lines of his career. He shares an off the wall story about John Wayne, he pontificates on the state of the world, and he also shares his wisdom about the repo life:
“The life of a repo man is always intense.”
“The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”
Otto works with both these guys and gets competing views of how the job is supposed to be. A third repo man, Lite, works with Otto and together they break almost all of Buds rules for operating by. The film is in part a rant against conformity but at the same time treasures the norms of outcast groups. You know that there are social pretensions in the movie because nearly every product that gets used by the characters is a generic brand label. When Otto goes home after losing his grocery store job, his lobotomized parents are transfixed by a religious program of the most nondescript nature imaginable. He eats dinner out of a can, cleverly labeled so anyone would know what they were having, The liquor store that seems to be continuously robbed sells the most generic alcohol possible. It is simply labeled with the white and blue format that was used for generic products in those days. Something about the world is off but it is difficult to quite say what it is because the corporate language is so muted.
I don’t really think there are big ideas in the film, I just think there is big attitude. Everyone seems to have a chip on his shoulder and the only authentic people are the ones who are willing to rant. Yet even the low life angry people are not much more than an image of non conformity. In what may be my favorite line from the movie, one of Otto’s punk friends tries to get over a botched robbery with the following interaction”
Debbi: Duke, let’s go do some crimes.
Duke: Yeah. Let’s go get sushi and not pay.
I watched this on Amazon Instant Video, it is the first thing I’ve rented and watched on the TV rather than my Kindle. Repo Man is entertaining as hell and it is likely to get under your skin. It feels weird, dirty, fresh and smart. It’s the indie film that you always want to keep to yourself or else everyone will crush it and it will lose it’s cool.