Repo Man was Alex Cox’s stylish punk-influenced directorial feature debut and is now available on sumptuous Blu-ray DVD. After dropping out of a Law degree at Oxford University and then graduating in Radio, Film and TV from Bristol University in 1977, Cox realised there were fewer opportunities for realising his cinematic visions in the UK so he moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA’s film school. His graduation film was a surreal 40-minute short about an artist at odds with society called Sleep is for Sissies (1980), in retrospect a coincidental companion piece to Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature Permanent Vacation (1980). In fact, both directors, unlikely to have nown about each other at the time, were heavily influenced by the DIY ethic of Punk Rock music and No Wave films which helped overcome budget restrictions and other production drawbacks.
Following UCLA, Cox and two friends formed Edge City Productions to produce low-budget feature films and Cox wrote the screenplay for Repo Man. In an early starring role, Emilio Estevez plays Otto Maddox, a young punk rocker living in Los Angeles. He gets fired from his boring job as a supermarket stock assistant then discovers that his pot-smoking, ex-hippie parents have donated the money they promised him for finishing school to a corrupt televangelist. Depressed and broke, Otto wanders the streets and eventually meets Bud (cult actor Harry Dean Stanton), a veteran repossession agent (‘repo man’) working for a small automobile repossession agency. Otto is initially disgusted by the concept of repossessing cars but his opinion soon changes when he is quickly paid in cash for his first ‘job’. As Bud had told him, ‘the life of a repo man is always intense,’ and Otto soon becomes accustomed to the fast life style: drugs, car chases, the thrill of hotwiring cars and the good instant pay.
The March 1984 theatrical release limited to Chicago (then Los Angeles) was short-lived but, as if repaying faith in Cox’s devotion to Punk culture, the surprise success of the pre-CD era vinyl soundtrack album (featuring popular LA punk bands and an exclusive title song by Iggy Pop) persuaded Universal to re-release it in a single theater in New York City. It ran for an incredible 18 months and eventually earned $4,000,000, despite the movie already being on video and cable release.
Although at the time Repo Man had predictably limited but still favorable reviews, nowadays it is celebrated as a landmark film. It was voted eighth best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by the Los Angeles Times with two criteria: ‘The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list’. Also, Entertainment Weekly ranked the film No.7 on their list of The Top 50 Cult Films. This edition’s promotional notes state that it was ‘Arguably the defining cult film of the Reagan era, the feature debut of Alex Cox is a genre-busting mash-up of atomic-age science fiction, post-punk anarchism, and conspiracy paranoia, all shot through with heavy doses of deadpan humor and offbeat philosophy.’ It’s not just the two leads but the compelling offbeat script, memorable supporting characters and year-zero L.A. backdrops that makes Repo Man so unique. The screenplay purports to unusual characters by the usually bizarre things they say, with loners and outsiders coming together in a marriage of disparate oddballs.
Interestingly, Cox believes the film’s mise-en-scene owes a debt to Robert Aldrich’s 1950’s film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955). There is certainly a loose ‘atomic’ theme in the narrative but it’s debatable whether that affects the ‘look’ of the film or otherwise evokes Kiss Me Deadly. Regardless, Cox was astute in those he chose to help him create his visual style, including hiring Wim Wenders’ cameraman Robby Müller. A year later Müller would be the cameraman for Wenders’ memorable Paris Texas (1984), also starring Harry Dean Stanton. Müller would subsequently work with Sally Potter, Lars von Trier…and Jim Jarmusch.
Devotees of Repo Man are provided with an abundance of extras on this director-approved Blu-Ray edition: the obligatory original theatrical trailer; an Alex Cox introduction from 2011 looks back to the film’s production; in ‘Repossessed’ Cox and co-producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks discuss their recollections of the film’s inception. There’s also an intriguing lengthy interview with Harry Dean Stanton who director and producers remember was often difficult on set; a roundtable viewing of deleted scenes includes Cox and executive producer Michael Nesmith. The inclusion of the rarely seen TV edition is of particular interest because it has never previously been released on home video. At Universal’s request, Cox and actor Dick Rude (who played Duke in the film) re-edited this version at the time for American network television. This version features alternate scenes as well as some surreal overdubbing to account for the heavy use of expletives. Presented here in its original 1.33:1 TV presentation, many scenes fade to black to indicate the TV advertising breaks inherent in the master copy. Also, a complimentary 44-page full colour booklet specially created by Cox, entitled ‘The Repo Code’ incorporates much Repo ephemera for cultists.
Following Repo Man, Cox made the moderately successful biopic Sid and Nancy (1986) and the critically panned Straight to Hell (1987), the latter featuring Jim Jarmusch as a supporting actor. He then made Walker (1987), his personal favorite, which didn’t receive the acclaim it deserved. With his attempts at popularity failing both commercially and critically, Cox became an independent director again. Over the next 20 years he made films in Mexico, films for TV, presented BBC2’s Moviedrome seasons of cult films, wrote a book on westerns, was a director for hire, got fired from projects, updated Shakespeare, made films in his native Liverpool and finally moved into digital filmmaking.
In 1993 Cox and his producers proposed a Repo Man sequel called Otto’s Hawaiian Holiday. The sequel didn’t happen but Cox eventually made Repo Chick (2009) despite Universal’s objections.