There is a great joie de vivre in Repo Man (1984), the first feature made by film fan Alex Cox. But what followed was a convoluted story of official and unofficial sequels and spin-offs marked by discord and recriminations.
Unlike other ‘classics’ of the 1980s, Repo Man has aged well. Cox disingenuously lays much of the credit for this to cinematographer Robby Müller’s involvement, but the intriguing mix of elements - the punk soundtrack, Emilio Estevez’s brash performance juxtaposed with Harry Dean Stanton’s as his laconic elder mentor, Fox Harris’s mad scientist with an eye-patch and a radioactive car, the anonymous blue and white packaging labels of food and drink and so on - all add up to a unique experience that announced the arrival of an important new filmmaker.
Yet, Alex Cox never managed to sustain the reputation he gained with Repo Man: while its immediate follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), was relatively successful, subsequent films alienated and bewildered audiences. The 1987 double bill of Straight to Hell, with its inexperienced all-musician cast, and the America-baiting Walker sealed his fate as a ‘cult’ director. But although his budgets dwindled further and further, Cox has never made an uninteresting film.
The sequel to Repo Man, Repo Chick (2009), was released on the 25th anniversary of the original film and reunited half a dozen members of the supporting cast, including Cox regular Miguel Sandoval, with the director, who also cameos in both films. The breezy, if overlong, movie aptly takes a pot shot at reality TV, but replacing Estevez with a ‘valley girl’ and her entourage creates a less interesting dynamic than the one between Otto and his cohort. The film’s central MacGuffin - banks need to repossess everything in America from trains to ocean liners with the help of the new Repo team - has a certain absurd resonance in the current economic climate.
The CGI backdrops of Repo Chick were clearly inspired by Ralph Steadman’s ink-splattered hallucinogenic style, but the film’s micro-budget means its innovations, including shooting actors in front of a green screen then filled with unrealistic landscapes from cartoon to toy town, limited its audience. Steadman’s influence on Cox is also visible in the booklet included in the new Blu-ray, which reproduces the original four-page comic that was the first incarnation of Repo Man, expanded with the addition of further cartoon drawings by Cox, reminiscent of the style of the gonzo cartoonist.
In between the two Repo films, Cox wrote another instalment, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which he couldn’t film. Estevez’s character Otto is renamed Waldo, so he could stay incognito on his return from outer space (and probably also to keep lawyers happy if a different studio to Universal had made it). Waldo is even lighter on plot than Repo Man: the title character roams through an even more polluted LA, going from one haphazard set-piece to another. If Waldo had been made in the late 90s as intended, it could have been part of the trend for ‘yuppie in peril’ films that briefly flourished after Cox’s first feature, including Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) and John Landis’s Into the Night (1985).
Although the cast and crew of the original film were interested, Cox was unable to raise the money and so the script might have just remained typed words on a page, if the director hadn’t decided to allow others to have a crack at adapting it. A team of fledgling American filmmakers, helmed by producer-director Stuart Kincaid, showed an interest and set about filming it to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Repo Man. Unfortunately, there was some disagreement between Cox and them. When I spoke to Cox, he said they shot only a small amount, and his preference is clearly for people to experience Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday as the graphic novel that was released in 2008. But in a feature-length documentary on the matter, A Texas Tale of Treason (2006), the filmmakers claim they finished shooting the film in Texas in 2004, and that Cox told them to shut down production just as they were getting to post-production. With only a small amount of Waldo footage accessible online either in trailer form or as part of the documentary, it’s impossible to know how much Kincaid actually shot. If he did finish the film as Texas Tale attests, one hopes that he and Cox can eventually put aside their differences and let the movie see the light of day as the existing footage isn’t bad at all and I, for one, would be curious to see more.
Universal Studios retained the right to make a sequel to Repo Man, which they eventually exercised by releasing the similar sounding but unrelated Repo Men (2010) three years after it had originally been shot, muddying the waters when Cox was trying to get Repo Chick released. Understandably, Cox doesn’t have anything nice to say about Repo Men in his introduction to the new Repo Man Blu-ray, although the film’s actually quite good. It is best described as a cross between Blade Runner and Brazil as it was inspired by both Philip K. Dick and a Monty Python sketch about organ-legging (which appears on a TV in the film). Jude Law plays a Repo Man in a dystopian future, repossessing mechanical body parts from owners who need them to survive, with gristly consequences, and in some respects this is actually a better film than Cox’s own bona fide sequel.
Alex Cox talks of the unrealised Repo Man comic as ‘what might have been’ (he gave up after four pages because it was too much work – read the interview for more details) and an investigation into the sequels - finished, unfinished and adapted - makes that statement all the more poignant. With Repo Man available as a Blu-ray, it’s certainly time to re-appreciate the original film for its many great qualities and enjoy that at least, in the best home format it’s ever been.
Note on the Blu-ray extras:
The Repo Man Blu-ray includes excellent additional features: aside from the original comic there is also an amusing censored TV edit, with the immortal expletive ‘Melon Farmer’ replacing a more familiar expression with the same initials and number of syllables - the TV edit is almost as worthy as the ruder original because of the absurdity of the ridiculous language.