Outside of Goffs, California, in the Mojave Desert, a policeman pulls over a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu driven by Dr. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris). The policeman opens the trunk, sees a blinding flash of white light, and is instantly vaporized, leaving only his boots behind.
Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez), a young punk rocker living in Los Angeles, is fired from his boring job as a supermarket stock clerk. His girlfriend leaves him for his best friend. Depressed and broke, Otto is wandering the streets when a man named Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) drives up and offers him $25 to drive a car out of the neighborhood.
Otto follows Bud in the car to the "Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation" (a small automobile repossession agency), where he learns that the car he drove was being repossessed. He refuses to join Bud as a repossession agent, or "repo man", and goes to his parents' house. He learns that his burned-out, pot-smoking, ex-hippie parents (Jonathan Hugger, Sharon Gregg) have donated the money they promised him for finishing school to a crooked televangelist. He decides to take the repo job.
Otto soon learns that, as Bud had told him, "the life of a repo man is always intense." He enjoys the fast living, drug use, car chases, hot-wiring cars, and good pay. His old life is boring by comparison.
After repossessing a flashy red Cadillac, Otto sees a girl named Leila (Olivia Barash) running down the street. He gives her a ride to her workplace, the United Fruitcake Outlet ("UFO"...), where they have sex in the backseat. On the way, Leila shows Otto pictures of aliens that she says are in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu. She claims that they are dead but still dangerous because of the radiation that they emit. Meanwhile, Helping Hand and its repo rivals are offered a $20,000 bounty notice for the Malibu. Most assume that the car is drug-related, because the bounty is so far above the actual value of the car.
Parnell finally arrives in L.A., but he is unable to meet up with his waiting UFO compatriots because of a team of government agents led by a woman with a metal hand. When he pulls into a gas station, the Rodriguez brothers (competitors of Helping Hand) take the car. They stop for sodas because the car's trunk is so hot. While they are out of the car, a trio of Otto's punk friends, who are on a crime spree (what they call "doing crimes"), steal the Malibu.
After they visit a night club, Parnell appears and tricks the punks into opening the trunk, killing one of them and scaring the other two away, allowing him to take the car back. Later, he picks up Otto and drives aimlessly, talking about how a brilliant scientist friend gave himself a lobotomy to deal with his work, then reveals his friend drives a Chevy Malibu before collapsing and dying from radiation exposure. Otto takes the car back to Helping Hand and leaves it in the lot. The car is stolen from the lot, and a chase ensues with all the characters involved. By this time, the car is glowing bright green.
Eventually, the car reappears at the Helping Hand lot with Bud behind the wheel, however he ends up being shot and leaves the car. The various groups trying to acquire the car soon show up; government agents, the UFO scientists, and even the televangelist to whom Otto's parents gave his college funds. However, anyone who now approaches it bursts into flames, even those in flame-retardant suits. Only Miller, an eccentric mechanic who works at Helping Hand, is able to approach and enter the car. He slides behind the wheel, apparently impervious to the radiation. He beckons Otto into the Malibu, and Otto accepts eagerly, dismissing Leila's confession of love (at which point she calls him a "shithead" and says "I'm glad I tortured you."). After he settles into the passenger seat, the Malibu lifts straight up into the air. The film closes with the car zooming through the air around downtown LA and then off into the stars.
Repo Man garnered widespread praise upon its release, and is widely considered to be one of the best films of 1984. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 98% approval rating based on reviews from 45 critics. In 2008, the film was voted by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors as the eighth-best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years. Entertainment Weekly ranked the film seventh on their list of "The Top 50 Cult Films".
Roger Ebert wrote:
I saw "Repo Man" near the end of a busy stretch on the movie beat: Three days during which I saw more relentlessly bad movies than during any comparable period in memory. Most of those bad movies were so cynically constructed out of formula ideas and "commercial" ingredients that watching them was an ordeal. "Repo Man" comes out of left field, has no big stars, didn't cost much, takes chances, dares to be unconventional, is funny, and works. There is a lesson here.
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror FilmsWon - Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor – Tracey Walter
Nominated - Saturn Award for Best Writing – Alex Cox
Boston Society of Film Critics AwardsWon - Best Screenplay
MystfestNominated - Best Film
American Film Institute ListsAFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs - Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Science Fiction Film
The soundtrack features songs by various punk rock bands such as The Plugz, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, Iggy Pop and others. The film score was created by Tito Larriva and Steven Hufsteter of The Plugz.
- Iggy Pop - "Repo Man" – 5:12
- Black Flag - "TV Party" – 3:50
- Suicidal Tendencies - "Institutionalized" – 3:49
- Circle Jerks - "Coup d'État" – 1:59
- The Plugz - "El Clavo y la Cruz" – 2:56
- Burning Sensations - "Pablo Picasso" – 4:01
- Fear - "Let's Have a War" – 2:28
- Circle Jerks - "When the Shit Hits the Fan" – 3:11
- The Plugz - "Hombre Secreto (Secret Agent Man)" – 1:46
- Juicy Bananas - "Bad Man" – 4:59
- The Plugz - "Reel Ten" – 3:09
According to the documentary A Texas Tale of Treason, Cox wrote a sequel to Repo Man which, though filming started, was never finished.
Chris Bones saw the script on Cox's website and asked, and received, permission to adapt the script into a graphic novel. The book, Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday, was released in March 2008 by Gestalt Publishing.
On December 3, 2008, a sequel was reported to be going into development with the working title Repo Chick. The story would be set against the backdrop of the 2008 recession and the resulting boom in repossession that extends far beyond cars and homes. On February 13, 2009, Cox announced on his blog that shooting had finished and the film was in post-production. The bulk of the film was shot in front of a green screen, with backgrounds filmed and composited-in during post-production. Universal sent Cox a cease-and-desist notice because he does not possess the rights to do an official sequel, but he ignored it since his film uses none of the characters from the original. The film premiered on September 8 at the Venice Film Festival. It was released to DVD in the United Kingdom on February 7, 2011, and in North America on the following day.