Sci-fi punk oddity gets the Criterion treatment

Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man has just been released by Criterion in one of their typically sweet packages.

Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man

Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man has just been released by Criterion in one of their typically sweet packages. To film geeks and countercultural types of a certain age, the film needs no introduction, being part of the underground cinema canon.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the film is essentially a nihilistic comedy with a rather understated sci-fi subplot. A young Emilio Estevez stars as Otto, a suburban L.A. punk who gets fired from his job at a supermarket for his bad attitude. He stumbles into a job as a repo man, mentored by grizzled veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). Meanwhile, a Chevy Malibu keeps being stolen and re-stolen all over town; its mysterious trunk cargo incinerates all who lay eyes upon it, and government agents are on the hunt for it along with the repo men and their rivals, a gang of car thieves.

The plot is loose and incidental; it’s really just a framework for the atmosphere and characters, including several repo men who are all the more intriguing for being totally underdeveloped. The film twitches with the punk spirit of the era; a memorable scene early on finds Otto in an alleyway mosh pit, and members of classic L.A. bands like Fear and the Circle Jerks make cameos (the latter playing a synth-lounge version of themselves, prompting Otto to spit “I can’t believe I used to like these guys”).

The Criterion package includes the film, a round-table discussion with Cox and several others who worked on the film, a “clean” version of the film that Cox cut for TV, several other video tidbits and an informative, nicely designed booklet. An essay by Sam McPheeters places the film in its cultural/political context and explains the strange story of its release, while a comic by Cox tells the film’s origins from his point of view; he includes a typewritten pitch by the producers, promising returns amid the independent film boom, which Cox now characterizes as high-level bullshitting. Finally, Mark Lewis, the real repo man who inspired the story, provides an interview of his own.

It’s more or less impossible for someone like me to judge Repo Man objectively; it’s tinged with a double nostalgia, recalling both the innocence of early adolescence when I saw it and a bygone era of independent film. But I can say with confidence that it’s a totally unique work, at once representing its era and standing outside of time with its originality. So whether you’re revisiting it or seeing it for the first time, it’s definitely worth checking out. ■

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