Punk and the movies have always had an uneasy relationship at best. The anarchic sensibilities of the ultimate rebel subculture just don't sit well with the kind of money and organization required to create even the most modest piece of filmmaking. The best representations of punk in cinema (The Decline of Western Civilization and Sid and Nancy come to mind) tend to use it as a subject rather than really embodying what that extended-middle-finger-beneath-the-blue-mohawk was all about.
Repo Man stands as a brazen, freakish exception to the rule, arriving several months before Ronald Reagan's triumphant reelection and taking a cheerful dump on anything related to business as usual. It's kind of a road movie and kind of a science fiction movie and kind of a look at those unsung heroes who repossess cars amid the haze of serious drug use. But mostly, it's a celebration of the grimy underbelly of 1980s Los Angeles: honest, unapologetic and filled with almost aggressive levels of energy.
It actually earns most of its points solely by avoiding anything smacking of formula or convention. Its protagonist Otto (Emilio Estevez) is a feckless thug who embraces the punk lifestyle almost out of boredom. He finds a calling -- if that's the correct term -- when a grizzled old repo man (the one and only Harry Dean Stanton) takes him under his wing to show him the ropes. They're basically car thieves with legal protection. They get shot at a lot. The notorious Rodriguez Brothers keep showing up to rumble with them. And there are guys in the office who seem to have escaped from a government lab somewhere. In other words, it's the perfect environment for an instinctive rebel who can't quite figure out what he's fighting against.
Complications arise with the arrival of a stolen Chevy Malibu with space aliens in the trunk (yes, really), but Repo Man doesn't even need that to knock the Freak-O-Meter off the scale. There's no real plot to speak of, and incidents arise with little rhyme or reason. The grocery stores all carry generic brands -- some with labels that literally read "Food" – and black ops agents show up seemingly form the same planet as the aliens. Otto's long strange trip doesn't end so much as move to another plane of reality. The destination doesn't matter like the journey does, a road to nowhere passing through seemingly profound things that turn out to be some kind of cosmic prank. This isn't a movie so much as an expression of a mood: that strange mix of fury, absurdity and disappointment that the young feel when the world invariably lets them down.
The Los Angeles location makes the perfect setting. The city was getting ready to host the Olympics and civic pride was everywhere… wallpapering over the seething caldron of poverty, racial strife and sun-baked hopelessness nibbling at very corner. Rather than gloss over those details, Repo Man embraces them: holding them up to the light and daring us to look away. It derives energy from that iconoclasm. It make no promises about what it's going to do except assuring us that we won't ever see it coming. And with the crumbling streets of LA as a backdrop, it finds a poetry in its futile rebellion that even the most hardcore punk could never deny.
Naturally, that energy could never be repeated. Cox went on to direct Sid and Nancy, bringing the same vibe to a more respectable format, but like all great acts of rebellion, this one could never be repeated. The conditions that crated it have changed forever, mostly for the worse. But at that time, in that place, the overlooked fringe needed to hear its message: delivered with fearsome assurance, yes, but also with a wink and nudge so we wouldn’t take it all so seriously. In the process, it created a singular cinematic statement that embodies its era far more than the corporate bubblegum that crowded it out of the cinemas at the time. We need its spirit now more than ever, and on that front at least, Repo Man will never let us down. Just remember to keep the trunk closed when you're slam dancing on the roof.