Iggy Pop was living in an efficiency apartment near the Whisky a Go Go when a gangly Brit visited him, seeking a theme song for his first movie. The filmmaker was Alex Cox, a graduate of UCLA film school, and the movie was “Repo Man,” which would, after a brief initial release, achieve cult status for its punk bona fides and its comic sci-fi vision of Ronald Reagan-era Los Angeles.
In an interview that’s one of the welcome extras in a new, high-definition restoration of the feature (available Tuesday from Criterion Collection), Pop reveals that Cox’s request gave him a chance to fulfill a dream: to write a paean to hot rods, speed and death.
It wouldn’t be wrong to call “Repo Man” a car movie, but it would be an understatement as sly as some of the film’s ultra-quotable dialogue. At the center of the 1984 release is a sought-after Chevrolet with a mysterious, otherworldly cargo. The main characters, played by Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez, are new-age cowboys prowling the streets of L.A., in pursuit of the vehicular property of deadbeats.
Bud (Stanton) and Otto (Estevez) repossess cars on behalf of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corp., an outfit whose name suggests a disconnect between cheerful Reaganomics and ground-level reality and the bitter flip side of the president’s second-term promise of “Morning in America.”
The economic malaise that hangs over “Repo Man” is as evident as the burnt-pink smog captured by cinematographer Robby Müller and his crew — car-centric SoCal, like the rest of the world, was still mostly running on leaded gas then. Yet it remains a story that embraces healthy cynicism while not caving in to despair.
Along with anxious nods to Roswell, N.M., and the neutron bomb, Cox’s script weaves in zany jabs at televangelism and Dianetics, well before such topics were common sendup targets.
The movie’s deadpan mix includes a lo-fi version of the PA-system announcements in “Airplane!” as well as allusions, both offhand and direct, to “Kiss Me Deadly,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and William Burroughs. Iggy Pop’s speed-and-death-theme fascination notwithstanding, the movie is no death trip.
“Repo Man” is simply too loopy, too fresh, too unencumbered with dogma to qualify as a downward-spiral excursion into ennui. And it abounds in memorable lines, the more Zen among them delivered by Tracey Walter as Miller, a Helping Hand employee who apparently moonlights as a shaman (it’s L.A., after all). He’s well versed in the “lattice of coincidence” — a fine capsule description of the art of fiction and the serendipity of life. Even the movie’s bowdlerized TV version, supervised by Cox and a key component of the Criterion release, offers linguistic treats, with its generous use of such poetically awkward coinages as “flip you” and the indelible “melon farmer.”
The low-budget project turned its only product-placement sponsorships into rich running gags, a visual lattice of coincidence. Air freshener Christmas trees turn up in unlikely places, and generically packaged food products — a dispiriting particular of 1980s supermarket aisles — are everywhere. The production design supplements its brilliant use of the blue-and-white-labeled goods (courtesy of Ralphs) with a few ludicrous inventions, one of which gave critic Roger Ebert “one of the biggest laughs I’d had at the movies in a long time.”
Between the radium green of the opening credits’ road-map graphics and the final ascent of a glowing ’64 Chevy Malibu, there are glimpses of the period’s anonymous skyline. But mainly Cox is interested in the junkyards and industrial grunge of a downtown where foodie hot spots and artisanal cocktails aren’t yet a twinkle in a developer’s eye. The desolate Los Angeles streets are characters, much as they were in noir features of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
In his first big-screen lead role, longtime character actor Stanton — whose interview in the Criterion release is one highlight — is a natural resident of those bleak streets, the unflinching keeper of the Repo Code. As the young punk riding shotgun with him, Estevez taps into a kind of blank, wide-eyed jadedness. Both actors’ agents tried to dissuade Cox from casting them. Fortunately, he prevailed. It’s a pairing that clicks, and everyone in the cast jibes with the movie’s low-key bizarro sensibility.
But the film, executive produced by Monkee Michael Nesmith, might have slipped between the cracks of a regime change at Universal Pictures if not for the soundtrack. Besides the contribution of Iggy Pop (whose theme song is a collaboration with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and two members of Blondie), there are tracks by the Plugz, Black Flag and a never-again-recorded lineup of the Circle Jerks, among other stars of L.A.'s punk scene. The success of the album spurred a theatrical re-release after the movie had completed a limited run and was already out on video.
Cox pursued his interest in punk with “Sid and Nancy,” his well-received feature about Sid Vicious, and then enlisted a punk cast of thousands (among them Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and a pre-Hole Courtney Love) in the less-well-received spaghetti western “Straight to Hell.” He channeled his political interest in Central America (a background theme of “Repo Man”) into the Nicaragua-set “Walker,” which also struggled to find an audience. His 2009 “Repo Chick” came and went with little notice.
“Repo Man,” though, hit the right notes at the right moment. It wasn’t the first feature to mash up science fiction, underground culture and cutting-edge music; “Liquid Sky” was a huge indie hit in 1982, but its more cerebral, synth-driven saga contrasts sharply with the rough-and-ready of Cox’s politically astute debut. And “Liquid Sky” was set in New York, a city then secure in its status as the center of the cultural universe. Cox’s film, in comparison, explores the edges of a metropolis that was in search of a center, a place where “the life of a repo man is always intense.”