The short but subversive Hollywood career of Alex Cox is encapsulated in a nutshell by these two movies, which share little besides their anarchic sense of humour and punky disregard for mainstream studio convention. Produced by?of all people?ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith, Repo Man is the Britpunk maverick’s sensational 1984 debut, starring a fresh-faced, pre-Brat Pack Emilio Estevez and a grizzled, ultra-deadpan Harry Dean Stanton as scuzzy-cool car repossessors in a funky, multi-racial, comic-book sci-fi remix of ’80s LA. Fresh out of UCLA film school, Cox anticipated much of the self-referential postmodern pulp-hipster flourishes which were later depoliticised, heavily ironised and popularised by Tarantino-even down to the glowing suitcase steal from Robert Aldrich’s apocalyptic film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, recycled once more a decade afterwards in Pulp Fiction.
The crazed plot of Repo Man is a collage of anecdotes Cox picked up from real repo guys, snippets of atomic paranoia gleaned from nuclear science bulletins, cult-movie references, homages to LA’s then-vibrant punk scene plus sly literary nods to sci-fi supremo Isaac Asimov and junkie cut-up guru William Burroughs. As Otto, a zero-option suburban punker reduced to stacking supermarket shelves before a career in legalised carjacking beckons, Estevez exudes the kind of broody alienation that his dad Martin Sheen mustered in Badlands a decade before. As Otto’s mentor and seedy Jedi Knight of the repo game, Harry Dean oozes unflappable Rat Pack cool.
Repo Man works as a rock’n’roll adventure yarn, a multi-genre B-movie spoof and a genius satire on the zonked-out blankness of consumer-zombie America under Ronald Reagan. The inspired idea of tinned food adorned with bare labels like “meat” and “beer” was partly a reaction to the producer’s failure to secure product placement?but with delicious irony, similar packaging was later adopted by several large UK supermarkets for their bargain food ranges. Universal hated the film, burying its release and even, Cox claims, denouncing it publicly as pinko propaganda. An overreaction which speaks volumes about humourless Hollywood drones faced with mouthy mavericks. And yet, almost two decades later, Cox’s flip trip from subterranean LA to the stars still stands up as a vibrant, fresh and acerbic little masterpiece of anarcho-pulp cinema.
Just three years later, Walker wore out Cox’s already strained Hollywood welcome. Despite its reputation as a career-killing turkey, this true-life quasi-western about 19th-century American intervention in Latin America is actually a riveting and artistically audacious political parable. Starring Ed Harris as William Walker, the mercenary general who invaded and ruled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857, it feels like a sister film to Oliver Stone’s Salvador with elements of The Wild Bunch, Apocalypse Now and even Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie thrown in.
Although shot for just $5 million, the production values and pedigree of Walker are impeccable: it’s produced by Ed Pressman (Badlands), written by Rudy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid), and soundtracked by the late Joe Strummer in balmy latino mode. Heading up a heavyweight cast studded with ace cameos (Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin), Harris carries the film with buttoned-down menace, managing to suggest creeping madness with scarcely a blink, descending into Kurtz-ian uber-sadism without sacrificing audience sympathy. The all-American psycho boy-scout.
Walker was excoriated for its rambling plot, heavy-handed politics and jarring use of anachronistic details?at one point a US Army helicopter gatecrashes the action. There are certainly messy scenes in the film’s closing stages, but none which undermine its basic integrity as an absurdist satire on superpower imperialism?just imagine such a film about Iraq being released by a major studio today. No wonder Universal hated the film, ensuring it bombed at the box office with a desultory release. After which Cox was off the Tinseltown guest list for good. But with hindsight, he achieved a kind of moral victory, leaving behind probably the last ever counterculture movie made by a big Hollywood studio. For that achievement alone, if nothing else, respect is long overdue.