And why 1984’s “Real Americans” hated the film.
According to director Alex Cox, the screenplay rights to Repo Man revert back to him this year. What might he do with them, make Repo Man, the Musical? The Repo Chronicles for Amazon? You’d think the movie’s spite would be its best insurance against such horseshit, but I know I’m not putting money on that.
Here’s a scene-by-scene breakdown of how Repo Man violated Ronald Reagan’s America, starting with the killing of a cop by a neutron-emitting motorist in the film’s opening 90 seconds.
“Otto, are you paying attention to me?” “Otto” (Emilio Estevez) is instantly sympathetic for enduring a mindless grocery store job. Then he physically assaults a coworker before having a gun pulled on him by a neighborhood cat killer in a security uniform. Having ignited his famous family’s tiger blood like gasoline, Otto holds both middle fingers up to the security guard’s gun barrel.
Downing beers on the railroad tracks. When Repo Man was filmed in 1983, the only way one could shout the chorus from Black Flag’s Six Pack without embarrassment was alone. If ever that band had a guilty pleasure, Six Pack was it. Alone, Otto was also highly recruitable, which sustained distrustful kids’ attraction to his character for decades.
Instant punk scene - just add spray paint. Aging punks enjoy correcting those who mistake “slamming” for “moshing,” but the reality is that neither was enjoyed in alleys or on loading docks, especially without a source of live music. Except in Repo Man’s peer intro sequence. (Also, freeze frame: How are there only uncrushed beer cans under the stomping boots of these nihilistic youth?)
Speaking of recruitability. Never take a job from a geezer in a creeping car unless he proposes to underpay you in drugs (or if it’s Harry Dean Stanton). If this film captured anything right about punk rock kids – in LA, Detroit, DC, or wherever – it was that dares, negotiations, and absolutions often happened while walking alongside moving vehicles.
The themes of Repo Man. Distracted, lazy citizens bullied by a fearful and bumbling government makes, “It happens sometimes; people just explode,” one of the most pertinent movie lines ever. Less so, of course, for its abstract silliness than for predicting the authoritarian gibberish we shrug at and chug down today. Payback around every corner is another of Repo Man’s enduring themes, but you have to catch on to that one. (Check: count how many times characters get their comeuppance, immediately or otherwise.)
The Repo code. Behavioral ethics recited with severity and conviction during the consumption of what looks like enough speed to kill an elephant = GONZO. Asserting crucial rules, while simultaneously doing everything in your power to hamper your own ability to follow them, is as American as apple pie “the new normal.”
The other Repo Men. The Rodriguez Brothers enter by way of the car-to-car aggression that defines LA traffic. But rather than on one of its freeways, this vehicular aggression takes place on the banks of the LA River. Turns out the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees the famous flood control channel, but doesn’t police it (or issue film permits). “That’s an LAPD thing,” say types familiar with the 6th Street Bridge film location. But the cops don’t seem to want jurisdiction over “The River”: “It’s an Army thing.” Accurate or not, drawing the attention of any authority while down there isn’t smart, which makes it fun imagining Cox assuring his drivers and crew, “Everything’s cool, but hurry up! Get the camera!” If the LA River scene lacks a coherent pay-off, it could be a result of Cox & Co. runnin’ and gunnin’ while the gettin’ was good.
Archie, Duke, and Debbi: Armed and Overacting. Death wish 20-somethings waving guns around on liquor store sprees will always be inferior to Archie, the tallest of this trio, because concealing his face with an open-top paper bag showed just how much more he cared about protecting his mohawk than his identity. (Also: preceding a long and vivid career, Miguel Sandoval could’ve carried this group’s scenes solo.)
The wealth gap, called out circa 1984. “Fucking millionaires,” yells Harry Dean Stanton’s “Bud.” “They never pay their bills!” This rendering of a Caucasian man lording over a couple of Latino kids is a scene in which Bud sends Otto to repossess a tubby bastard’s Cadillac. The racial/socio-economic taunt may have been missed in Minnesota, Iowa, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Idaho, Wyoming, or North Dakota, with their 90.9% and higher white populations, but it sure made sense to those of us who had to stomach entitled schmucks in luxury cars.
Payback around every corner. More of the film’s actual sense of right and wrong directly follows when Otto gets pepper sprayed after tossing a dead rat into a convertible, expecting its female driver to leap from the car (for which she’s failed to pay). The woman calmly turns the table on his presumptuousness by aiming for his eyes. (Bonus lesson: If you fail, you walk home.)
Name one submissive female Repo Man character. Girl-interest Leila’s introduction is also an avowal of self-empowerment. Following their own curb-to-creeping-car exchange, Otto’s belligerent response to being turned down for a date triggers Leila to challenge his pouty man-hurt. She allows him access only after she redefines the terms.
Alex Cox may have been the first to take big screen swipes at Scientology. When “Lite,” Sy Richardson’s poker-faced Scientologist-in-the-making, shows Otto a few tricks of the trade, more of the Repo Code is revealed. “Put your seatbelt on,” he scolds as they seize a Camaro. “I don’t ride with anyone unless they’re wearing their seatbelt.” Lite manages to school Otto while swapping out an ignition lock cylinder as a maniacal, earsplitting car alarm protests the repo-in-progress. If codes come before comfort, Lite is the true pro of the bunch.
Philosopher Miller’s “Lattice of Coincidence”. Miller’s lecture to Otto on “cosmic unconsciousness” is the best discussion of spirituality over a barrel of burning toxic trash ever filmed. (Bonus points: ending the exchange with, “the more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” And this is the movie’s presumed crackpot.)
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s gratifying that, despite the Rodriguez Brothers being Bud’s primary competition, they still alert him to the Chevy Malibu for which there’s a $20,000 reward. It’s this begrudging unity that helps make the world Cox created feel more authentic. What makes it a thought crime is knowing how true it is that law-enforcement would lump all of these idiots together.
Why were men given larger brains than dogs? So they wouldn't hump women's legs at cocktail parties. For many early fans, watching Leila twice slap Otto’s face for his uninvited sexual advances was confirmation that the punk scene had indeed been invaded by asshole jocks. Some even consider Emilo Estevez’s truest contribution to be his parodying of the goons that ruined the LA scene created by first generation punks. The belief that sexual aggressors deserved to get slapped (and worse) became one of the lines drawn between the punk ethos of swashbuckling innovation and red plastic party cups, aka “the rapist’s wine glass.”
“No commies and no Christians in my car!” Hey-now, you can’t have Christians without cross-eyed piety and you can’t have a 1980s narrative without accusations of Communist Party membership (typically yelled from a creeping car.)
Teachable thought crime moment. When walking nuclear accident, J. Frank Parnell, driver of the radioactive ’64 Malibu, conducts his gas station pit stop like the dignified Man of Science he is, audiences learned a new form of condescension: eccentricity stifles the overly helpful. (Handy Tip: Whether under the influence of marijuana, alcohol, or plutonium, always exit the vehicle to vomit with the poise of someone attending a State Dinner.)
“Don’t ever say ‘fuck you’ to me because you haven’t earned the right yet.” Ah-yes, the film’s real villain, “Plettschner,” the rent-a-cop. It seemed back then that everybody had a father, boss, or uncle who spat versions of the same limp threat – those incurious, inarticulate middle-agers of the 1980s angered by kids with green hair and combat boots. It was the Plettschners who yelled, “Punk faggots!” and “Faggot Commies!” from behind their steering wheels. Brooklyn actor Richard Foronjy so nailed that decade’s white male powerlessness that his sole big scene brings home Repo Man’s cult standing.
Next to a burger stand, still operating today on LA’s 8th & Maple, a ’64 Malibu is stolen from the Rodriguez Brothers by Archie, Duke, and Debbi. The brothers’ win some, lose some sportsmanship is charming. Restraint and grace despite disappointment? In 2019, if that’s not a thought crime, what is?
Downtown Los Angeles skyline at dusk, wide shot. In a view perhaps from Elysian Park, one can see how much Downtown LA has changed. If you go look, even online, a good number of Repo Man locations remain. A few are unchanged by developer money, but most take a minute to locate.
Extraordinary Rendition. The “Feds” grab Leila off the street, and during her interrogation demand to know whether the aliens she claims are hiding in the trunk of the ’64 Malibu are “illegal aliens.” The presumption was played for laughs, but 35 years later —even above hostile invaders from outer-space— Mexicans are still the go-to threat. WTF?
“John Wayne was a fag.” This line was rocket fuel for audiences in 1984. Never mind its homophobic nature, it was absolute blasphemy to America’s Plettschners. Miller’s declaration (and the resulting fracas among the team, aka the Helping Hands Acceptance Company) questioned the era’s masculinity, but did so while piling on fearful coping skills and personal dysfunction. If the characters in this scene were all waving guns, around you’d be watching Reservoir Dogs.
The kaleidoscopic whimsies of fun-loving berserkers. When Archie, Duke, and Debbi catch J. Frank Parnell reuniting with what he knows to be his sought-after ’64 Malibu, it’s the overacting that steals the scene. Archie opens the cop-killing car trunk on Parnell’s dare and disappears in a ZAP. This is when another delicious thought crime fills our ears — “Let’s go get sushi and not pay.”
Road rage returns –– followed by a baseball-bat-swinging Bud demanding unspecified justice from the Rodriguez Brothers. Bud asks, “Whose side are you on?” This occurs just before the plot somehow jumps forward in time enough to accommodate the serving of the brothers’ lawsuit at Repo HQ. And with that –poof! – Bud is fired. Uh, do the events of this story take place over a month? I ask because for the last three decades it’s felt as if they unfold over four days.
“Ra-di-a-tion. Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it’s bad for you. Pernicious nonsense. Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year.” So mumbles the electively-lobotomized Parnell, again car-creeping his way throughout downtown LA. This movie has more bizarro self-righteousness than the aforementioned Reagan presidency, but it works because Repo Man is conservative kryptonite.
Liquor store shootout: A Peckinpah-esque gun fight goes down wherein the fates of its cashier, Duke, Debbi, and even the cat killer in the security guard uniform all face the consequences of who-knows-what. Duke’s last words? “I blame society.” Scenesters in the audience were in on the joke because moms and dads and the general public had often taken punk lyrics too seriously. They were keenly aware of being portrayed as sullen fault-finders. Otto quickly calls bullshit on Duke’s commentary-as-martyrdom, making it the twinkle in this movie’s eye.
Gollum from The Lord of the Rings gets his. Otto’s attempt to rescue co-worker Marlene from FBI-style bad guys is thwarted by stupid Plettschner. Pulling at his arm, the rent-a-cop pleads for Otto to join him in macho weakness forever. Plettschner’s painful takedown is welcome, despite Otto’s capture.
Marlene & the Rodriguez Brothers to the rescue. The brothers rescue Otto from the torture-happy clutches of the government using Uzi machine guns (where was this firepower when they were gettin’ swung at bat?). They escape like they’re burning rubber in front of the prom. The hilarious action sequences are as clumsily edited as any of the day’s public access talk shows, which makes that earlier LA River chase scene look like a Michael Bay sequel.
“Out of order. Take the stairs,” one of the brothers says to a woman on crutches racing to make the elevator. No problem with cruelty for laughs here (thought crime!), but like the preceding gag in which the brothers navigate the double doors of a hospital entrance no more efficiently than the Three Stooges, the laugh might’ve been bigger on set than in the audience. Such riffs take us out of the story, but they also increase our feeling of being “in on it” with the filmmakers.
Open fire on the Feds. The Rodriguez Brothers blast away at anything in a suit (an Exhibit A thought crime if there ever was one). And still being driven gallingly slowly, the atomic Malibu is now glowing. How it manages to beat everybody back to the Repo yard for the big finish is a mystery answerable only by whatever is in the trunk.
Saving the biggest thought crime for last. No, not the ice cubes falling from the sky, but the phosphorescent Malibu zapping that Bible with bolts of anti-Jesus lightning. Underneath the whirring blades of a helicopter, as government agents become pillars of fire or just mentally deteriorate into sappy confessions, Miller, played immortally by Tracy Walter, innocently approaches the Malibu, and it winds up becoming his limo to the cosmic unconscious he’d spoken of earlier. Naturally, the teacher invites the student (Otto) to escape with him. Finally picking up speed, the old clunker is now a UFO – and about 72 other things.
The truth is, Repo Man is more naughty than subversive. But its tongue-in-cheek denunciations of mass consumer culture, snide mockery of law enforcement and government, and it’s-there-if-you-look ethics were smarter than they were given credit for at the time of its theatrical release.