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When I interviewed LA ska-punk band the Untouchables in a Leeds hotel they were keen to
relate the tales of their involvement in this movie. At the time, it was not yet released,
so I had no reference points. But still it sounded fine. They explained how Emilio Estevez,
as tyro repo man 'Otto', was sitting on the couch making veiled threats to elderly black lady
Mrs Parks (Helen Martin) about repossessing her car, when the room fills with her protective
family young guys - who just happen to be the Untouchables. Intimidated, Otto hastily makes
an exit, but on his way back down to the dark and deserted street he sees the contested car
parked there besides the band's scooters. Glancing around - no, it's clear, he breaks in and
hot-wires the car. The sound of the ignition alerts the band, and they begin hurrying down to
stop him. Otto revs up confidently - but the car refuses to budge, it's been raised onto jacks,
with the wheels spinning ineffectually in mid-air! The sequence closes as the Untouchables haul
him out and start beating him with fists, feet, and guitars.
It sounded great when they told me about it. It looks even better on DVD. This is gritty, witty entertainment, a hardcore road movie viewed through the windshield of a radioactive 1964 Chevy Malibu. As cool as fuck, from the opening credits tracking down the Route 66 road-map, taking in Los Alamos, then verse-by-verse through Winona, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, all the way to Edge City. Then we have those 'dead aliens'. If this is to be classed as an SF-genre movie then the absurdist glowing corpses in the car-boot form just another aspect of its general weirdness quotient, they melt people - "it happens, sometimes people just explode," says mysterious Agent Rogersz, "natural causes."
Just one more element of the film's fractured mindset. The car forms what Miller (Tracey Walter) calls "a lattice of coincidence" that ties the randomness together. Arriving from Los Alamos erratically driven by radiation-fried J. Frank Parnell, the car is hunted down by sinister weirdos, and by cute Leila (Olivia Barash), but gets lifted by the Hispanic Rodriguez brothers, then stolen by the inept punk wannabe-crooks Duke, Archie and Debbi. Meanwhile, fired from shelf-stacking, Otto is approached by splendidly seedy speed-snorting 'Bud' (Harry Dean Stanton), "you want to make ten bucks?" ... "Fuck off, queer," he responds. They team up anyway - "I ain't gonna be no repo man," he protests. "Too late, you already are." And soon, Otto is being instructed in the art of separating cars from their owners on behalf of 'Helping Hands Acceptance Corp', while getting involved with assorted low-life crazies and detouring down some terminal mean streets.
He even gains a sense of purpose in repo world, "a repo man is always intense," Bud tutors, and in a world of lawless scum, they live by a strict code. Irritably throwing a clutter of packages out of a car they've just repo'd, they turn out to be discarded packs of dollar bills which get strewn out across the freeway, and crushed beneath tyre-treads. Midwived by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith, the movie is acutely tuned to the nuances and comic absurdities of the street-tribe subculture of toxic rejects and burnt-out freaks in the garbage-strewn low-rent belt of LA. They are amiable losers who speak in clichés looted from TV movies, even as Duke dies in a pool of blood after a botched store-robbery he soliloquises "I know a life of crime led me to this sorry fate, and yet I blame society. Society made me what I am." Otto reels off what the weekend means to him, "Gilligans Island, Flintstones, Saturday Night Live." As he helps himself to a can from the fridge, Otto's TV-fixated mother suggests "put it on a plate son, you'll enjoy it more" by way of a nurturing gesture.
His dope-smoking parents have gifted Otto's $1000 legacy to televangelist Reverend Larry for his 'Bibles To El Salvador' campaign intended to combat "godless communism abroad and liberal humanism at home." There are more threads of weird incidental touches, beer-cans have 'beer' printed on them. Supermarket cereal packs say 'corn flakes'; another says 'mashed potatoes'. The can Otto raids from the fridge is just labelled 'food'. In the cyberpunk techno-noir sense the strangeness is here and now, just unevenly distributed. A darkness brilliantly luminous with laugh-out-loud observations and cracked dialogue, as when they break into Bud's hospital room to find his bed empty and Bud gone - and Reverend Larry on the overhead TV commentates "he is risen." Or when security-man Plettschner claims "I was killing people while you were still swimming around in your father's balls." Or while Miller feeds an oil-drum fire beneath the underpass and talks conspiracy theories about how the Mayans invented TV - "did you do a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?" asks Otto pointedly.
Miller knows the secret connections between flying saucers and time machines. How the South American disappearos are being snatched to populate prehistory - "there was a time when there was no people, right?" he reasons, so "well, where did all those people come from?" From the here and now, transported back in time by flying saucers from the future? Even more oddly, as the film closes, it looks as though he could be right. To critic Philip French, this is a "bizarre, surreal film noir," an impressive "idiosyncratic debut by wayward British writer-director Alex Cox, memorably photographed by Wim Wenders' regular cameraman Bobby Müller" Which is more or less what the Untouchables told me all those years ago in the Leeds hotel...