A not-quite sequel to the 1984 L.A. punk classic Repo Man, Alex Cox’s Repo Chick is both an extreme formal experiment and a genre-mashing goof-off. Starring some of the same actors but none of the same characters, and still using the grungy edge-of-L.A. milieu as ground zero for apocalyptic panic, Cox’s latest is a mix of digital and small-scale model animation, with live actors shot almost entirely in front of green screens. (With productions fleeing L.A. thanks to a lack of local tax credits, Cox’s cost-effective solution is to digitally composite unglamorous SoCal locales like the neighborhood of Commerce, rather than spend costly hours actually shooting there.) The result feels like a gonzo homemade comic book/conspiracy-crazed zine brought to life.
A stock-footage-heavy prologue sets the scene: The present-day financial crisis has turbo-charged the repossession industry, and a pile of Cold War–era missiles has gone missing. These two seemingly disparate story strains will converge in the adventures of Pixxi De La Chasse (Jaclyn Jonet), a Hilton-esque heiress and professional dilettante permanently flanked by a trio of sycophantic club kids who videotape her every move for broadcast in “a really exclusive hotel in Dubai.” Accused of behavior unbecoming to the De La Chasse name (driving with a suspended license, “having unprotected sex with backup dancers”), Pixxi is disinherited and forced to get a real job.
When her ride is repossessed, Pixxi offers her services to repo dude Arizona Gray (Miguel Sandoval), and surprises all by turning out to have a unique savvy for separating debtors from their homes and vehicles. Swiftly adapted to her new life, but still longing for old luxuries, she sets her sights on the ultimate repo job: bringing in three long-lost antique locomotive cars for a million-dollar reward. That mission brings her into conflict with a crew of green terrorists (key goals: forced veganism, the banning of golf, and—oh, yeah—the annihilation of downtown L.A.), leading to a loosely plotted, train-bound standoff that makes up all of Repo Chick’s second half.
Written, directed, and edited by Cox in 2009, Repo Chick debuted at the Venice Film Festival 16 months ago to mixed reviews, and has been basically MIA since. It’s now being released in New York and L.A. by Industrial Entertainment, an offshoot of David Lynch’s production company, to promote an early February Blu-ray release. It’s a testament to Cox’s unique brand of reference recycling and stylistic approach that Repo Chick’s two-year-old skewering of the zeitgeist doesn’t feel dated. Maybe it’s because his thematic focus hasn’t changed much in 25 years: As in Repo Man, the repo trade itself is presented as a surprising safe haven for reckless rebels, through which outsiders can game a system that would otherwise screw them, and come out the wash as heroes. And while Pixxi is more like a Hilton than like the circa-2011 Kardashian celebutante model, it hardly matters: The cult trope of a smarter-than-she-looks megababe saving the day is more valuable than anything Cox has to say about princess culture, and Jonet—a blistering comic discovery who has apparently, and inexplicably, not worked since shooting this—expertly transitions from the wide-eyed victim of mock-the-rich kicks into the perpetrator.
While Repo Chick sat on the shelf, Cox spent much of 2010 preparing a restored and extended cut of his manic 1987 spaghetti Western, Straight to Hell, the last film he finished before the anti-imperialist parable Walker essentially killed off his mainstream filmmaking career. Available on DVD via Microcinema International, the new Straight to Hell is a classically gorgeous, languidly paced meditation on the slippery slope between sexual obsession and violent rage—pretty much in every conceivable way the polar opposite of Repo Chick’s desktop-software, speed-of-the-Net sensibility.
The energy behind that sensibility does flag in Repo Chick’s second half, as the pleasant shock of the movie’s comic precision and scrappy-fantastic virtual reality starts to wear off. And if Cox—a self-proclaimed “conspiracy theorist” who has spent the past two decades living more or less off the grid in rural Oregon—is trying to make a cogent political argument, he has failed. His allusions to current-day corruption and political absurdity are too vague, and his satire is often flippant or friendly instead of cutting. Which is not to say that Repo Chick’s humor is easy—in fact, Cox seems to take pleasure in setting up obvious jokes just to knock them down with out-of-nowhere punchlines (such as when a wink-wink reference to Repo Man resolves in a riff on another movie featuring repo men, Sunset Boulevard). Goofy-funny, fluffy yet sharp, for all its flaws Repo Chick is a midnight-movie blast.