For whatever reason, Alex Cox – the iconoclast behind Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, and Straight to Hell – has never quite enjoyed the indie godfather reputation of Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch. Having created several of the best American independent films of the 1980s, Cox dropped off the cultural radar after the commercial failure of the fitfully brilliant Walker – his single stab at a studio-backed, comparatively large-budgeted film. During the two decades since, while Cox has languished due to a self-proclaimed “blacklist”, he’s directed seven little-seen films.
Fortunately, Microcinema has recently issued a few of the overlooked films on region-free discs, hopefully contributing to a rediscovery of Cox’s work. Primary among these releases is 1991’s El Patrullero (“Highway Patrolman”), the first film Cox made after Walker.
The first ten minutes of Highway Patrolman announce it as a taut homage to (or satire of) a certain type of cop film. The film doesn’t necessarily open so much as get fired from a revolver; Cox immediately sets the stage for a ‘70s-style cop-sploitation pic, complete with wailing sirens, a desaturated green-brown color template, and a percussive score. The film maintains a fierce energy through the opening sequences – taking us through the final days of training academy for Cadet Rojas (Roberto Sosa) the patrolman of the title.
In addition to physical training and driving practice, the cadets are indoctrinated into totalitarianism. “When you follow a vehicle,” the instructor barks “stop it first and then decide what they've done.” Most importantly, he reminds them, is the mantra of the force: “They always break the law.” The relentless pace is reminiscent of the character intros in Scorsese’s Departed and suggests the film is going to be a similarly bleak tapestry of corruption.
However, while Rojas and his friend Cadet Guerrero (Bruno Bichir) drink and dance at their graduation ceremony, the sickly strains of an atonal mariachi band announce an interesting tonal shift. Suddenly the film is more “highway” than patrolman. Rojas and Guerrero are assigned to a remote section of road, deep in the Mexican interior. Rojas has graduated with high marks, been given one of the best cars the force can provide, and applies himself accordingly.
The film begins to unfold as a series of episodes, depicting the day-to-day drudgeries of Rojas as the excitement of the job begins to wear off. Rojas is manipulated into letting a sobbing woman go, despite multiple traffic violations. To fulfill arrest quotas, he’s forced to bust truckloads of day laborers, people only trying to make a living. Drunk drivers, disrespectful gringos, domestic disturbances… the reality of the highway undermines the adrenal power of the training section.
“Even the buzzards are at a loss here,” Guerrero remarks about their assignment to the Mexican hinterland.
Soon, Rojas is married. To support his family, Rojas begins taking bribes to augment his paltry salary. The slide into corruption feels inevitable and Sosa, who’s brilliantly understated throughout the film, does a great job of combining the regret and resolve accompanying this desperate compromise.
Though Highway Patrolman quiets down throughout the first hour of vignettes, a plot involving ruthless drug dealers that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lethal Weapon movie soon kicks in, propelling the film to a startling climax. One of the great things about Highway Patrolman is its unsettled narrative; it’s never clear where Cox and screenwriter/producer Lorenzo O’Brien are taking the proceedings.
Initially, Cox – a director known for creating irreverent, anti-authoritarian caricatures – seems to be weaving a darkly humorous look at The Man. As the film progresses, however, it becomes a bit more grounded and less wry, with Rojas becoming more and more a real man and less of a symbol. Cox, aided by Sosa’s quiet performance, pulls off a difficult feat here, creating a nuanced, sympathetic portrait of man resigned to his Sisyphean task. It’s an uncynical look at a person in a cynical world.
The DVD is generously appointed with behind-the-scenes information and, most interestingly, Edge City, Alex Cox’s first short produced while he was at UCLA. Here’s hoping that Microcinema’s release helps Highway Patrolman gain footing as a tautly realized, unblinking character piece.