skip navigation
share:
Remind Me

THE GIST

More than 25 years after its initial release, Repo Man (1984) lives up to its reputation as a cult comedy thanks to Alex Cox's imaginative script and a superb ensemble cast. As Roger Ebert wrote in his enthusiastic review in the Chicago Sun-Times, "It is the first movie I know about that combines (1) punk teenagers, (2) automobile repossessors, and (3) aliens from outer space." The underlying sophistication of the film's approach is suggested in the scene of Otto's torture: Cox's source of inspiration here was Stanley Milgram's notorious 1963 "obedience to authority" experiment in which unwitting test subjects were all-too-easily convinced to deliver electric shocks. At the same time, Repo Man is full of endlessly quotable dialogue; one of the better-known examples is when Otto's punk ex-girlfriend Debbi says, "Duke, let's go do some crimes" and Duke replies, "Yeah. Let's go get sushi and not pay." While the film satirizes the mindless conformism of suburbia, as embodied by Otto's zombie-like parents and the onscreen proliferation of generic canned goods, the film's punks hardly make out any better in the film's satire.

Born near Liverpool in 1954, Alex Cox initially studied law at Oxford and directed plays there before moving to the U.S. and studying film at UCLA. Cox recalls that the UCLA production program fostered a notably independent spirit; one of its graduates from that era, Charles Burnett, directed the landmark Killer of Sheep (1977) and the program's faculty included Shirley Clarke (The Connection, 1962). Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy, who worked as producers on the film, were classmates of Cox and had recently established a production company that made mostly television commercials. Mark Lewis, one of Cox's acquaintances, was an actual repo man, and Cox rode with him on several occasions. Many of the film's details come from Lewis's direct experiences: the repo man's risk of getting physically attacked or shot, the specific techniques of breaking into cars, and the ubiquitous Christmas tree-shaped air fresheners. During this time Cox also became involved in the L.A. punk scene, which plays a central role in Repo Man.

Cox initially conceived of the script as an adaptation of the William Burroughs story "Exterminator!" but very little of that material remains in the finished film. The script then developed into a low-budget road film, part of which entailed driving from Los Angeles to New Mexico. The project gained momentum when the ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith took an interest in the script. Nesmith had just written and produced the dirt bike/time travel film Timerider (1982), which displayed a similar off-kilter sensibility. In fact, the image of smoking boots left by a disintegrated cop in Repo Man is an affectionate homage to Nesmith's previous film. The actors Miguel Sandoval and Tracey Walter (who is unforgettable as Miller) also appeared in Timerider, underscoring the extent to which Nesmith's presence contributed to the ultimate success of Repo Man as a whole. In his autobiography, Cox notes that the script was initially rejected by Universal Pictures but Ken Kragen, Kenny Rogers' manager, was interested in representing Nesmith and convinced the executives at Universal to take it on.

Zander Schloss, who plays Otto's chump friend Kevin, was initially cast in the role but later replaced by Chris Penn, who was in turn replaced by Schloss again after only a day's worth of shooting. Schloss eventually joined the Circle Jerks, who appear in the film as the nightclub act, and played with the band for a number of years. The film's now-classic soundtrack also includes music by Los Plugz, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, and a title song by Iggy Pop. Also of note is the cinematography by Robbie Müller, best known for his collaborations with Wim Wenders such as Kings of the Road (1976) and The American Friend (1977). When Müller had to leave the production, his assistant Robert Richardson picked up the remaining shots. Richardson, of course, became one of the industry's leading cinematographers in his own right.

Universal's uncertainty about the very strange film they had on their hands was reflected in the advertising copy, which suggested more of an urban action film than a sci-fi punk comedy. Beginning in February 1984, the film was test-marketed in Chicago and several other cities. It didn't open in Los Angeles until May, but Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times embraced it as "fresh, virulently funny, with an eye on life that's as offbeat as the Beatles movies." She later ranked it as one of the top ten films of the year.

Executive Producer: Michael Nesmith
Producers: Peter McCarthy, Jonathan Wacks and Gerald T. Olson
Director and Writer: Alex Cox
Director of Photography: Robby Müller, with additional photography by Robert Richardson
Music: Steven Hufsteter and Tito Larriva, with songs by The Plugz, Iggy Pop (title song), Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Juicy Bananas
Film Editing: Dennis Dolan
Art Direction: Lynda Burbank and J. Rae Fox
Costume Design: Theda DeRamus
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton (Bud); Emilio Estevez (Otto); Fox Harris (J. Frank Parnell); Tracey Walter (Miller); Sy Richardson (Lite); Tom Finnegan (Oly); Richard Foronjy (Plettschner); Olivia Barash (Leila); Zander Schloss (Kevin); Del Zamora (Lagarto); Eddie Velez (Napo); Susan Barnes (Agent Rogersz); Jennifer Balgobin (Debbi); Dick Rude (Duke); Miguel Sandoval (Archie); Vonetta McGee (Marlene); Bruce White (Reverent Larry); Biff Yeager (Agent B).
C-92m.

by James Steffen

Sources:
Barber, Chris and Jack Sargeant. No Focus: Punk on Film. London: Headpress, 2006.
Benson, Sheila. Review of Repo Man. Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1984, p. E1.
Cox, Alex. Repo Man. Edited by Dick Rude. (Boston and London: Faber and Faber, 1988).
Cox, Alex. X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008.
Xavier Mendik. "Repo Man: reclaiming the spirit of punk with Alex Cox," in New Punk Cinema, ed. Nicholas Rombes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 193-203.

VIEW TCMDb ENTRY