Repo Man

Repo Man (1984)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Del Zamora, Tracey Walter, Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss
Extras: Commentary Track, Talent Bios, Theatrical and Video Trailers

Reviewing this DVD afforded a unique opportunity for me. Since its theatrical debut in 1984 and despite its availability on VHS, laserdisc, cable and even broadcast television, I have never seen "Repo Man" in its entirety. I’ve caught bits here and there while channel surfing, but never stumbled upon it from the beginning. I am familiar with other films by director Alex Cox, namely "Walker" and "Sid and Nancy," yet his calling card to the big time somehow eluded me.

Now, we video collectors understand that DVD (and previously, LD) special editions of films cater primarily to fans of whatever title happens to be mythologized at 30 frames a second. So I approached this review under the following premise: Would a special edition of a film I have never seen make me more inclined to like it? Not only did I fall in love with "Repo Man," but Anchor Bay Entertainment’s sparkling new DVD played so well on my home theater system, I feel as if I now own a 35mm print fresh from the lab. It’s that good.

"Repo man’s life is always intense."

"Repo Man" starts on a lonely stretch of desert highway. A ’64 Chevy Malibu speeds along, catching the eye of a highway patrol officer. The cop signals for the car to pull over. A nervous, sweaty man with glasses (one lens blacked out) arouses suspicion, enough for the officer to inspect the trunk. Popping the trunk, the officer looks in… and immediately vaporizes. As the car pulls away, the camera lingers on the officer’s smoking, semi-melted boots. Barely 5 minutes of screen time have elapsed.

We are then introduced to Otto, an angry street punk stumbling through his life. As played to perfection by Emilio Estevez, we first find him stocking plain wrap label groceries at the supermarket, only to lose his job due to his angry young attitude. Ah well, he still has his punker girlfriend… until he finds her in bed with another man. Soon, Otto’s life turns into a bizarre chain of chance encounters. Walking the mean streets of Los Angeles, Otto meets up with a guy who asks him to drive his wife’s car. As he drives away, an old man chases after the car. Otto has had his first taste of the life of a "repo man." Otto, affecting a sense of decency, rejects a job offer to become one and instead goes back home. His homecoming meal consists of a can labeled "food." His parents sit glued to the television, entranced by the homilies of Reverend Larry. Otto asks for the money promised him for college. In their stuporific state, they tell Otto that they gave away their savings to the good Reverend, earning them a place on the "honor roll on the chariots of fire."

With no other options, Otto accepts his invitation into the repo world. Along the way, he picks up observations about life, cars and the "lattice of coincidence" from which we all dangle. Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) guides Otto through the tribulations of a repo man, rattling off the "Repo Code" in between snorts of cocaine. Another happenstance lands Leila (Olivia Barash) in his lap. Leila unveils the conspiracy surrounding the Malibu, now carrying a $20,000 bounty on its hood: the remains of four aliens reside in the Malibu’s trunk and various factions will stop at nothing to get their hands on the extraterrestrial contraband. Finally, there’s Miller, the philosophical mechanic (Tracey Walter), whose wild speculations about UFOs, driving, and old Hollywood stars at first seem a tad eccentric, but by the end of the film turns out to be the voice of reason.

As all forces begin to converge on the Malibu, Otto begins seeing through all the subterfuges and masks to find that at the heart of every conspiracy lies an enigma. Otto is about to confront that mystery and discover his true place in this generic world.

"The more you drive, the less intelligent you get."

"Repo Man" goes beyond unconventional; it defies any neat categorization. There’s humor, but it’s not a comedy in the strictest sense. It’s a drama, yet filled with nonsensical moments. Whatever its genre, "Repo Man" does not disappoint. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the narrative unfolds at a brisk clip, but not at the expense of shortchanging the plot. In fact, the film demands your attention. Visual gags abound and keeping alert yields numerous rewards. For starters, not until the end credits (which unfold backwards, from top to bottom) did I realize that everyone at the repo garage is named after a beer (Miller, Bud, Lite, Oly). Even one of the characters wears a plain wrap T-shirt over his beer gut that says "Beer." Also, references to plain-wrap groceries abound; no individual trademarks exist in Otto’s world. Perhaps due to the film’s low budget and then-shocking material, no corporate brand would lend their label to the story. I cannot think of a better satire of product placement than when Bud and Otto want a drink and slam a six-pack of "drink" on the liquor store counter, even if that was not the original intention of the gag.

The plot is linear, but not organic. The entire story hinges on one coincidence after another. Otto bumps into Bud on a street, Otto just happens to come across Leila, the Malibu literally drives up in front of him. Otto (as his namesake implies) is on auto-pilot, cruising through life until life decides to put him to work.

"There’s room to move as a fry cook."

The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> image is perfect. The transfer is <$THX,THX> certified, and the cleanliness and accuracy of the master I directly attribute to THX’s involvement. The picture is sharp, free of grain and completely film-like. Whether in the desert, or a junkyard or the red haze of a nightclub, every color rings true to the intent of Robby Muller’s remarkably textured cinematography, especially when you consider that this was a low budget film. Deep black levels allow for exceptional detail delineation and shadow depth. The extra resolution from the <$16x9,anamorphic> mastering of the video allows even the tiniest details to pop off the screen. Free from digital or compression artifacts, this is one of the finest DVD transfers I have ever seen.

Originally released in mono, Anchor Bay provides <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 as well as Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio tracks on the DVD. It’s a toss-up as to which soundtrack I preferred. The <$5.1,5.1 mix> favors discrete pans of sound effects and wonderfully accents Iggy Pop’s driving "Repo Man" theme. The surrounds are for the most part active, but not vigorously so. City noises, desert winds and music fill jump out intermittently, but do not have a gimmicky quality when present. Alas, there is not much use for a boom track and, with few exceptions, the LFE remains for the most part quiet. On the other hand, the 2.0 track provides a more cohesive soundfield, which I especially appreciated during musical passages. Bottom line: either soundtrack satisfies.

The DVD contains numerous extras, including theatrical and video trailers, talent bios and animated menus with music cues. The jewel of the disc’s supplemental features is a full length <$commentary,commentary track> by director Alex Cox, executive producer Mike Nesmith, casting director Victoria Thomas, and stars Zander Schloss ("Kevin"), Sy Richardson ("Lite") and Del Zamora ("Legarto Rodriguez"). Unfolding like a high-school reunion, the commentary has everyone contributing jokes, anecdotes and reminiscences, with a giddiness that’s infectious. Whether it’s Alex Cox describing Harry Dean Stanton as "a combination of old west/cadaver" or how the smoking boots became the artwork for the British poster, insights fly at the same furious speed as sight gags from the film. Another interesting trivia tidbit is when Alex points out that one of the punkers in the film, credited as Michael Sandoval, is the same Miguel Sandoval, best known for his turn as the drug lord in "Clear and Present Danger." Everyone has something to add and you get a real sense of nostalgia. The commentary is solid throughout the 92-minute length, but there is never a sense that people are talking just to fill the time. Zander talks about how he has been working with film students and how many of them have stated that "Repo Man" was their inspiration to pursue filmmaking careers. As evidenced with everyone’s generosity of remembrance, it’s easy to see why. One final note: there’s an absolute hilarious scene where Miller asserts a judgement about a beloved Hollywood icon. As funny as I found the scene, the commentary by Cox, Nesmith, et al, took a moment to pay tribute to Tracey Walter, one of the best character actors in contemporary film. (For those who have seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. For those who haven’t, you are in for a treat.)

Talent bios and two trailers round out the extras. The talent bios serve up factoids about Cox, Nesmith, producers Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy, Estevez and Stanton. Offering textual quotes in addition to filmography stats is a nice touch. The trailers are identified as "theatrical" and "video." Both are <$PS,widescreen> and in <$DS,Dolby Surround>. The principal difference between the two is that the video trailer has narration, whereas the theatrical does not. The theatrical trailer does a better job of highlighting the cryptic aspects of the storyline, The video trailer’s narration pumps up the energy, but robs some of the mystery from the plot.

As part of THX certification, calibration signals have been programmed into the disc to optimize audio and video performance. THX OptiMode tests range from pink noise bursts and speaker phase adjustments on the audio end to contrast/picture and tint/color set-ups for video playback. The tests are easy to implement and offer the means to extract every nuance of image and sound the DVD so amply contains.

"it’s happens sometimes. People just explode."

The final results of my experiment? If you are a fan of the film, as I now consider myself, Anchor Bay has given us a wonderful present. If this review has piqued your curiosity enough to give the DVD a shot, you will not be disappointed.

P.S. There is a party scene where the repo men’s wives dote on Otto. In the credits, "Repo Man Wife #2" is credited as "Angelique Pettyjohn." For all you classic Star Trek fans out there, Angelique was in "The Gamesters of Triskelion" episode. She was the one with the big hair, fighting alongside Kirk and Uhura who were captured to participate in gladiator-style games. If I’m not mistaken, Kirk nailed her in between skirmishes.