Repo Man

28/09/18

Some films are evergreen.

A recent viewing of The Big Lebowski, for instance, reconfirms for me its absolute quality, unaffected by the passage of time, and its worthiness to be considered a true cult movie. Other films do not weather the years quite so convincingly.

I first saw Alex Cox’s Repo Man on its release in 1984, when it felt edgy and ground-breaking. I certainly wasn’t the only critic with that opinion. Cox, of course, went on to consolidate its considerable success with his next film, Sid and Nancy, before flushing his career spectacularly down the toilet with the awesomely bad Straight to Hell (perhaps Straight to Video would have been a more appropriate title).

But a midnight screening at the Cameo is enough to persuade me that an opportunity to reassess Repo Man on the big screen is something I shouldn’t let slip. Oh dear.

This is the story of disaffected punk, Otto (Emilio Estevez), who quits his safe job at a supermarket in order to work with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the titular antihero who earns his bread and butter by snatching back automobiles from owners who have failed to keep up their repayments. At first, Otto is hostile to his co-workers, who he views as establishment figures, but as he comes to know them, so he begins to settle into their unconventional routine. We also meet some of Otto’s former punk friends, who are happily robbing and brawling their way around LA, with no apparent motivation other than to avoid boredom. Meanwhile, the rather strange Doctor Parnell (Fox Harris) is driving a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu around the city. There’s something hidden in the boot of his car that a lot of people, including Bud, are very eager to get their hands on. Could it be the evidence of an approaching alien invasion?

What seemed so subversive back in the day, now looks kind of clunky and artless. The action sequences are decidedly sloppy and there are sections where the actors are clearly improvising their lines and not making a very good job of it. Sure, there are still some nice touches peppered throughout – I love the world building here: the anonymous packaging in the supermarket with some canned products simply labelled ‘food,’ a clever attack on the rise of consumerism – and I still rather like Tracey Walter’s turn as Miller, the ex-hippie car mechanic who seems to have the answers to all of life’s mysteries at his oil-stained fingertips. Estevez is a beguiling presence too, but sadly not beguiling enough to carry the film.

Watching it again after so many years, I can’t help noticing that for long stretches of time, my attention is wandering (and not just because it’s past midnight). Frankly, this isn’t anything like as good as I remember from my first viewing. It may simply be that I’ve changed over the intervening years, that I’ve become more demanding, but whatever the reason, this really isn’t working for me.

And that’s a shame. We often like to carry a torch for the movies that first sparked our passion for the cinema, but in this case the torch has been well and truly extinguished.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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