From 1978 to 1987, there was no hotter director than Alex Cox. Coming off the oddball punk cult classic Repo Man and the undeniably brilliant (if factually suspect) Sid and Nancy biopic, the British filmmaker was poised to become a major player in the growing realm of unique cinematic voices. Even his rock and roll spaghetti western Straight to Hell couldn't completely cool his heat. No, it took 1987's Walker to ruin his Hollywood cred, sending him into a state of industry exile from which he really never has returned. It would be five years before he directed again, and then it was for foreign investors and almost no distribution. The last straw seemed to come when he was fired from the adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (later helmed by Terry Gilliam). As a result, Cox has had to struggle to survive creatively, seeking his filmic fortunes back in England before hitting on the idea of "microfeatures" - films made for $100K or less. The first of these films, Searchers 2.0 is now out on DVD and proves that, while vanquished from the business he once helped bolster, Cox has definitely not lost his talented touch.
Quite by accident, two former child stars - Hispanic heavy Mel Torres and half-baked hero type Fred Fletcher - experience a weird sort of professional reunion. When they learn that 'screenwriting legend' Fritz Frobisher will be appearing at a celebratory screening of his film Buffalo Bill vs. Doc Holiday at Monument Valley, they decide to go visit him...and kick his ass. Seems both men have horrible memories of that film and of the imposing writer using a riding crop to coerce a performance out of them. With the help of his daughter Delilah - and her gas guzzling SUV - Mel plots revenge. Fred, on the other hand, may have more menacing motives. As they make the trip from LA to Arizona/Utah/Colorado, they run across a former costar with some payback issues of his own as well as their own interpersonal demons. Confronting Frobisher might not be enough, but in the wacky world of ex-Tinseltown talent, there may not be much more in the offing...or is there?
It's a shame that Alex Cox was more or less "blackballed" after the huge financial and critical failure of of his highly charged political allegory Walker. True, few in the late '80s were able to fathom a period piece about an American carpetbagger running roughshod over 19th century Central America, especially with an ongoing conflict with the current Contras filling the nightly news. But as an artistic statement, there was nothing about the movie itself that demanded his banishment. What's clear some twenty plus years later is that Cox has always marched to the beat of his own Id-inspired bravado, burning as many professional bridges as his abilities tended to forge. For the fascination fact fairy tale Sid and Nancy alone he should be canonized. Few rock recreations captured the mood and the meaning of punk's perverted DIY better or more bravely. John Lydon can argue with the truth all he wants - Cox's callback remains a motion picture masterpiece. That's why the release of Searchers 2.0 by Microcinema International is so important. As an artist working without a solid support system, getting a chance to see what he can still do is a primer on perseverance, and skillful reinvention.
More or less a road film hiding a terrific Hollywood satire (imagine The Player with even less of a clue and film trivia malapropisms), Cox wants to riff on everything that's made his decades in the dead zone so consequential. Not only does he take on the stupefying system that rewards hackwork and plot illogics, he deconstructs what it means to be part of the problem. His carefully crafted characters - Mel and Fred - are wonderful examples of fringe faces, recognizable as part of the day in, day out aspects of the dream factory without resonating beyond their headshot. They are part of the product, not the perception, and in the stellar work of Del Zamora and longtime Cox cohort Ed Pansullo, we can sense such far below the credits casting expertly. The script does give them some decidedly dopey things to do and say, but the reality is that most individuals lost in their own world of struggle and survival are just as dim and disassociated. With idealistic daughter Delilah as a counterpoint (while driving a land cruiser, she still refused to frequent businesses with a recognizable logo) and the journey as motive, we get a grand combination of laughter and insight.
Cox clearly holds a grudge. Listening to the various insider insinuations, arguments over the "Best War Film" slowly degenerating into a knotty namechecking of high concept actioners, this director clearly believes he has been kept on the outside looking in for obvious reasons - he refuses to play 'the game.' There is also an undercurrent of futility that is hard to deny, especially in light of what we learn about Frobisher's latter years spent hawking T-shirts and autographed scripts. As the title suggests, Hollywood is all about bastardizing and prostituting its legacy, leaving no mythic stone (or source of potential income) unturned. Even these minor bit players in the bigger picture can see the depressing reality. Cox continues his old tricks of tampering with tone and continuity - characters will turn and address the camera and plot points will be set-up only to be ignored later. Even the ending is part of his psycho-surrealistic intentions. While it may not match the majesty of his Sex Pistols project, or offer up the balls of Repo Man or Walker, Searchers 2.0 is still a terrific film. It also proves that Alex Cox is not really MIA, just misunderstood and mislabeled. He is still a great director.
Shot on HD and given a nice post-production polish, there are moments in Searchers 2.0 that rival anything Cox as ever done, visually. Shots of the lonely horizon and of fabled Monument Valley come across brilliantly in the colorful, dense 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The transfer takes the entire microfeature ideal into account and delivers a wonderfully evocative picture. All budgetary concerns and found locations aside, this is a good looking movie.
Slightly problematic would be the best way to describe the sonic situation here. Occasionally, the dialogue can get lost in the ambient noise and/or background score, and the music is often cued much louder than need be. This is perhaps a production/distribution problem and not part of Cox's original mix. Still, for its flaws, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 offering is decent and defendable.
As for added content, we are treated to a wonderful, self-deprecating commentary track with Cox, composer Dan Wool and sound designer Richard Beggs, a mini-Making of that's heavy on travelogue and light on insights, and a trailer. While the full length feature discussion is a delight, the rest if kind of disposable.
As a defender of everything this filmmaker has ever done - yes, even Straight to Hell - this critic was a bit concerned going into Searchers 2.0. When a director has been delegated to the "has-been" arena before really getting a chance to be a certified 'someone', one tends to question their original assessment. Luckily, Searchers 2.0 solidifies any previous praise. This is a great movie never underdone by its limited monetary or mainstream pitfalls. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it suggests that everything that happened to Cox occurred for a reason. Without his original maverick stance we wouldn't have the first few movies he made, nor would he have to reinvent his muse in such a vital, engaging way. Granted, he may deserve better treatment at the hands of those notorious celluloid sharks, but somehow, he's managing the last laugh...and we are giggling right alongside him.