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The life of a Repo Man is always intense

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The excellent Green Room has thinking about some of the best punk rock movies.

Repo Man (1984)

Writer-director Alex Cox’s Repo Man became a cult classic almost immediately. A beacon of subversiveness in Reagan’s sanitized, suburbanized America, the movie had too much of everything: mysterious aliens, a deadly glow in the trunk of a car (similar to what showed up in Pulp Fiction a decade later), and punk rockers galore, along with biting takes that ran the gauntlet from corporate culture to religion.

Punk apathy is personified by Otto, played by Emilio Estevez. He owns the screen from the very first scene, flipping the double-bird to an armed grocery-store security guard after getting fired from his stock-boy job. Otto’s overall dissatisfaction with life (his girlfriend leaves him for his ex-con friend; his pothead parents have given all their money to a TV evangelist) make him a perfect repo man candidate. He’s aimlessly wandering the streets when he’s picked up by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, never better) and gets duped into joining the business. Alongside the ensuing car hijinks, there’s a punk crime spree, a cute girl involved with the United Fruitcake Outlet, a government conspiracy to get ahold of some dead aliens, and various people exploding.

It doesn’t make much (any) sense, but the movie’s own bizarre originality enabled it to resonate immediately: There still has never been anything like it. It’s anchored by the undeniable chemistry and friendship between Estevez’s and Stanton’s characters, and heightened by random bits of dialogue that became one-liners due to their absurd quotability: “Why so tense, guy?” “Let’s go get sushi… and not pay!” “People just explode. Natural causes.”

Otto sees his adolescent dissatisfaction mirrored in all the adults he runs into. Bud, in particular, has many rules for his Repo Code, even though a colleague like Lite breaks all of them. (All of the repo men except for Otto are named after beers.) The L.A. setting is visibly hot and dusty and severe, full of graffitied car lots and vacant spaces. No one seems to know what they’re searching for, until a Chevy Malibu worth $20,000 comes into play. Suddenly everyone is focused, but in the end, that’s still not enough. Helped along by brain-fried lot attendant Miller, Otto gets his transcendence anyway, from an unexpected source.

Buoying this bleak yet ultimately hopeful tale is an unparalleled punk soundtrack, with most songs railing against the commercialized and zombified American lifestyle. Otto sings Black Flag’s “TV Party” sitting on a curb, drinking generic beer. Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” scores a brief sex scene, while the punchline in Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” is perfectly timed. Iggy Pop himself wrote the surreal guitar score. Best of all is The Circle Jerks appearing in a punk club doing a nightclub version of “When The Shit Hits The Fan.”

Executive producer and former Monkee Mike Nesmith knew how much certain songs could add to a soundtrack, which might have actually saved the movie. Repo Man was so weird, it almost wasn’t released, until punk fans started scooping up the soundtrack in droves, and the movie was finally shown in theaters. Over 30 years later, Repo Man’s perfect and surreal snapshot of 1984 punk still holds up.

Availability: Repo Man is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or your local video store/library. It’s also available for rental or purchase from the major digital outlets.