Color, 1984, 92m.
Directed by Alex Cox
Starring Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Olivia Barash, Tracey Walter, Fox Harris, Sy Richardson
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Eureka (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Universal (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
One of the crown jewels of Reagan and Thatcher-era counterculture films, Repo Man dragged early '80s underground sensibilities into mainstream acceptance. It’s also a whole lot of fun and, unlike many of its contemporaries, has aged quite gracefully. A synopsis can't really come close to capturing the bizarre fun to be had here, but for the record, here goes. Aimless slacker teen Otto (Estevez) walks out on his menial job at a grocery store and, through a twist of fate, hooks up with Bud (Stanton), a “repo man” who repossesses cars for a living. At first Otto recoils at the thought of joining this oddball lifestyle in which, according to the speed-snorting Bud, the goal is to intentionally get into tense situations. Otto comes to know his fellow repo men, such as rambling Zen-freak Miller (Walter) and Lite (Richardson). Things take a turn for the weird when the office gets a report for a high repo reward on a Chevy Malibu, which contains a Kiss Me Deadly-style piece of mysterious glowing cargo in its trunk. Otto learns more about the target from UFO fanatic Leila (Barash), who shows him a photograph of four alien bodies connected not indirectly to the maverick car now being driven by an unhinged scientist (Harris). It all spirals downhill from there, with a mind-bending finale that mixes about five different genres at the same time.
Director and whip smart film buff Alex Cox went on to acclaim with Sid and Nancy before alienating much of his international fan base with Walker, Straight to Hell, and Highway Patrolman, but he will always be best remembered for this film. Financed by The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, this is as much a sonic experience as a visual one, with a delirious punk soundtrack kicked off by Iggy Pop’s catch main title theme. While Estevez has his best role ever as Otto, this is really Stanton’s film all the way. His laconic delivery of the Repo Man creed and his droopy-eyed, world weary demeanor couldn’t be better, and this is a rare cult film with young viewers that provides unique, interesting roles for actors of all ages and races. (And look out for the repo secretary, played by the great Vonetta McGee from Blacula and The Eiger Sanction, and a fleeting appearance by legit and porn actress Angelique Pettyjohn, star of Mad Doctor of Blood Island). The next time you feel the ‘80s were just a cinematic wasteland, pop this one in for a nice antidote. And you’ll never look at John Wayne quite the same way again.
The first DVD on the market came in 2000 from Anchor Bay, a nice antidote to over a decade of pretty dreary VHS presentations at the time. The sickly, blown out white tones approximate the look of a Los Angeles sliding fast into decay and all of the quirky visual details are vividly rendered, from the hilarious food and drink labels to the odd touches in the background designs and outfits. The 5.1 remix is only as good as the original sound material and sounds a bit artificial; it's limited but effective enough when the music kicks in. As for extras, you get the original theatrical and video trailers (it was released almost simultaneously in both formats, as well as shown on cable), a bouncy commentary track with Cox, Nesmith, Richardson, actors Del Zamora and Zander Schloss, and casting director Victoria Thomas, along with the usual talent bios. The film was also available in a quickly-depleted deluxe collector’s tin, packaged in a jewel case along with a booklet, poster reproduction, and soundtrack CD, with an amusing license plate design for the outer case.
Universal eventually replaced this one in the US with a somewhat different special edition including a “Repossessed” piece about the making of the film (along with producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks and actors Richardson, Dick Rude, and Del Zamora), a deleted scene compilation, and the hilarious “Harry Zen Stanton” interview short. Eureka outdid this in the UK with a solid 2011 edition including a welcome Region B Blu-Ray porting over the extras along with a music and effects track (the big exclusive here). The big extra here is the notorious alternate TV version which, much like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, adds several unused scenes and concocts some hilarious new terms to replace the strongest profanity. (Yep, you’ll get your “melon farmer” fix right here.) The Anchor Bay commentary appears here again, while Cox offers a new video intro and a lofty “Repo Code” booklet created by the director himself.
At long last in 2013, American Repo Man fans could finally see the film get the full Criterion treatment, too, with a Blu-Ray release and a simultaneous DVD reissue. The transfer looks fantastic, as expected, with the HD option looking extremely sharp and crisp for a low budget title normally closer in appearance to, say, Liquid Sky or Diva. The audio is PCM mono, which is just as well as that's the most natural-sounding option for the film (and the way it was originally recorded). Preexisting bonus material includes the trailer and deleted scenes, "Repossessed" roundtable discussion, "Harry Zen Stanton" featurette, and the great TV version (presented here upscaled from the original broadcast master). New material includes a 12-minute interview featurette with Iggy Pop, who remembers his first meeting with Cox and how he got involved with the film's soundtrack, and a separate "Plate o' Shrimp" featurette featuring new chats with Dick Rude, Olivia Barash, Miguel Sandoval, and musician Keith Morris, who cover their own stories of how they wound up in the film and how the whole crazy project came together in front of the cameras. The pretty incredible packaging comes in a digipack-style slipsleeve design with great graphics covering every side and a pretty massive 67-page booklet that's an eye-popping design feat all by itself. Inside you get essays by Sam McPheeters, Cox's "Repo Code" mixture of text and comic book graphics, and a Cox interview with real-life repo man Mark Lewis. Intense.
Updated review on April 9, 2013.