Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a Sci-fi Oddity That Revolves Around Cars
I saw this film completely by accident during a weekend of free Showtime. I read the title, noticed the name Harry Dean Stanton, and decided to roll the dice on how I would spend the next two hours of an afternoon. I got lucky.
The best way to describe watching this film is if you aren’t prepared for what you are about to watch the entire thing is going to look weird. But, after you watch it more than once you learn to appreciate the fact that it’s a film far from the mainstream. Just pure creativity. An idea that was produced on a shoe string budget into a film, with hopes that someone watching would like it.
An underdog movie that critics loved when it was released and has gained a cult-following since. Rotten Tomatoes even rated it at 98%. Here’s a fun fact, one of the secondary characters in this film was the bases for Napoleon Dynamite.
The Plot of Repo Man
Spoiler Warning in Effect
The scene opens on a gold 1964 Chevy Malibu speeding across the Mojave Desert. A California highway patrol officer on a motorcycle chases and pulls over the Malibu. The officer approaches the Chevy to see Dr. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) lurking over the wheel. He wears glasses with one leans covered like an eye patch and one clear.
The officer sees he is from out of town and asks what’s in the trunk. Parnell gives an eerie response, “Oh, you don’t wanna look in there.” Which prompts the officer to ask for the key to he can open the trunk for himself.
As the officer opens the trunk a flash of bright light appears and vaporizes the officer leaving just his leather boots smothering in the wind as the Malibu drives off.
Scene cuts to a pre-Breakfast Club Emilio Estevez playing Otto Maddox, an 18 year old LA punk rocker with a 21 year old fake ID. After quitting his stock-boy job at the local grocery store he goes to a party to find his punk rocker girlfriend in bed with his best friend.
As dawn breaks, Otto finds himself wandering the streets down in the dumps with empty pockets. That is until an old Chevy Caprice driven by a man named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) rolls up. Bud offers him 25 bucks to drive his “wife’s car” out of a bad neighborhood.
When both cars arrive at Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation Otto learns that the car he was driving was a repo. He rejects a job offer and leaves in a huff to his parent’s house. Otto’s parents are ex-hippies who have been sucked into the spell of a televangelist and given him the money they were saving for Otto. After learning this he leaves the house and starts his new job as a Repo man.
Bud teaches Otto the repo-code and takes him under his wing. They drive around town at all hours of the day and night ripping off cars from people who “own”.
All the repo men who work at HHAC are off the rails in some way or another. Lite (Sy Richardson), who shoots blanks from a .45 caliber handgun at people to scare them away if they become violent during a repo. Miller (Tracey Walter), the weirdo lot mechanic, who refuses to learn how to drive because he claims that driving makes you less intelligent. He also swears that John Wayne was a cross-dressing homosexual.
In this scene, Lite saves Otto from a violent repo.
During a repo Otto meets a young girl named Leila (Olivia Barash) who is running away from a government agency. She shows him a black and white photo of four alien corpses who she claims have been stolen out of Area 51 and smuggled in the back of a ’64 Chevy Malibu. She warns that the car is dangerous because the alien bodies generate so much radiation making the car hot.
Soon after learning this a repo report goes out on the Malibu with a $20,000 bounty on it. Way above its resell value. The hunt is on as everyone goes out looking for the hottest ’64 Malibu and the far-out cargo in the trunk.
After getting into an argument with Bud, Otto leaves him and starts walking the streets. Suddenly he sees the Malibu driving by and chases it down on foot. Parnell sees him and stops to offer him a ride. After talking for a few minutes Parnell dies from radiation exposure leaving Otto to take the car back to the lot as a completed repo.
The plot thickens as Bud and Otto go to a convenience store to buy beer and are accosted by his best friend and ex-girlfriend who are robbing the place at gunpoint. Gunfire ensues and Bud is hit in the ear leaving Otto to escape unharmed but later kidnapped by the government agency.
After a brief torture he escapes and arrives back to the lot. He finds Bud, still wearing a hospital gown, sitting in the Malibu which is now glowing green from radiation.
The government agency, and even the televangelist, come to control the Malibu to no effect. Anyone that comes near it bursts into flames expect for Miller the mechanic. He is drawn to the car and steps inside behind the driver seat. Settling in he asks Otto to join him for “a little spin.”
Otto leaves it all behind and rides shotgun before the Malibu suddenly starts to float into the sky. The Chevy flies through the LA cityscape with Miller quoting the theme of the movie which is, “The life of a repo man is always intense.”
Why Repo Man is a Car Movie
This film takes place in 1984. A magical time when most of our favorite cars from the 1950’s-70s could be purchased for cheap, and seen as just used cars. You see cars like a prime 1965 Ford Mustang fastback, 1964 Ford Falcon Convertible, 1971 Pontiac Trans Am, and even a 1977 Chrysler Cordoba. And of course the film revolves around the hunt for a 1964 Chevy Malibu.
As with all golden car-movies the soundtrack is often the red bow that ties the entire package together. Repo Man is no exception with the main theme performed by no other than Iggy Pop. Most of the movie has a psychedelic surfer rock vide to it thanks to songs by Burning Sensation, Circle Jerks, and The Plugz (Who backed Bob Dylan at one point in their career.)
Repo Man is an Underrated Cult Classic
The film has everything you want in a cult classic. Great music, quotable lines that would look great on a T-shirt, and enough obscurity to impress even the most ironic hipsters. The acting is real and the plot is surreal.
The film takes place in 1984. The Cold War was still going on and the thought of nuclear war was (is) a considerable fear. So much that a neutron bomb was considered a safer alternative, because people may die but the buildings would still be standing. The film’s DVD bonus feature includes interviews with Harry Dean Stanton and Sam Cohen, the inventor of the Neutron Bomb. Worth a search on YouTube if interested.
I guarantee if you watch this film you will start quoting the lines. It’s funnier than expected, has great cars from the last century, and is an often overlooked gem that definitely needs to stay in our ever decreasing attention spans.
In the words of the late great Harry ‘Zen’ Dean Stanton, “Repo man’s got all night every night!”
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