“Ordinary fuckin’ people… I hate ’em.” — Bud
Otto (Emilio Estevez) is “just a white suburban punk” (his own words) who loses his shitty job stocking groceries in a shitty store. After finding his girlfriend in bed with another punk, he takes to wandering the streets of Los Angeles, looking for trouble as he chugs his beer.
Beer, like most of the consumables in Repo Man, is labeled generically. People who live in this version of LA, which is portrayed no more seriously than Grand Theft Auto’s highly satirical Los Santos, are too busy being hypnotized by their television sets to worry about the freedom to choose; there’s no need for brand names because it’s all the same shit anyway. You just get Beer.
A stranger named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) spots Otto on the sidewalk and offers him a job as a repo man. Bud’s eager to share his trade secrets: a repo man shall not cause harm to any vehicle, a repo man thrives on tense situations, and a repo man does speed. Whenever they’re not repossessing cars and getting shot at, they’re starting fist fights and car chases through the Los Angeles River.
Why? Because why not.
Meanwhile, a suspiciously odd driver is making his way through town in a Chevy Malibu. We don’t know much about him, but we do know whoever looks in his trunk gets vaporized by something extra-terrestrial in nature. (It’s worth noting that Weekly World News is the newspaper of choice in Repo Man.) One day there’s a $20,000 bounty put on the Malibu, pitting Otto’s friends and rivals against one another. Otto’s friends and rivals, by the way, are pretty indistinguishable.
Amidst the flurry of action-packed scenes are relatively quiet ones in which the supporting characters launch into wordy monologues about life, the universe, and everything… without saying anything significant at all. (It kind of reminds me of David Byrne’s True Stories… so much of this stuff isn’t relevant to the plot, but then again, there really isn’t a plot.) Miller, a grease monkey, makes far-out observations which might sound sensible coming out of the mouth of a new age guru, but if you actually look for meaning you’ll find a whole lot of nothing. Otto, who’s too stupid to look for meaning in the first place, just kind of raises an eyebrow.
Back to Bud: he’s a well-meaning everyman who’s fearful of commies and convinces himself his hard work is going to result in the American dream. (His idea of the American dream is running a repo business of his own.) In other movies, the main character’s protégé might have shone light on the film’s deeper meaning by becoming a thinly disguised parrot for the filmmaker’s beliefs. In this movie he’s just a guy who hates bums… Christians, too. It probably doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to mean anything when it’s as witty as this.
So yeah, Repo Man isn’t a typical movie. It’s a movie that feels just as fresh, unpredictable, and effortless as it felt the first time I saw it. Even the most conventional aspect of the movie—the trunk-kept MacGuffin—refuses to adhere to any traditional rules of storytelling. Whenever you hear screenwriting experts go on and on about the importance of structure and carefully measuring the beats of your plot, you’re not wrong to think: “Yes, but you won’t ever make a movie like Repo Man that way.”
Come to think of it, I have no idea how this movie got made. It’s too funny, too alien, and too genuine to have been created by a mere human. I can’t imagine it working on the page and it shouldn’t work as a film, either. Somehow it does. And how it manages to sustain its breakneck pace until the very end, I’ll never know. Impossibly, Repo Man doesn’t get bogged down by cramming too much into it the way Buckaroo Banzai did (a movie I also adore, though not as much as this one); somehow it thrives on becoming bloated with too many characters, too many subplots, and too many words which don’t necessarily mean anything in and of themselves, but speak volumes about the film’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude.
Honestly, I don’t know why this uneven movie runs like such a finely tuned machine. Yet for anyone raised on Mad Magazine, it’s just about the perfect middle finger to all that is average. Stay in this weekend and watch it instead of going to see Movie.