When the one two career-ending punch of Straight to Hell and Walker landed at director Alex Cox's door, he was effectively blacklisted from Hollywood. No matter the mainstream success of his debut, Repo Man, or the cult classicism of his take on the seminal Sex Pistol's bassist, Sid and Nancy, he was a man without a studio or a support group to offer an outlet. Having befriended some in the Mexican film industry, he was eventually hired to helm an unusual police drama. Entitled El Patrullero (translated, Highway Patrolman), it was virtually unseen in America. Now, some two decades later, DVD has brought about a resurgence in Cox's canon. Among the mini-masterworks audiences have finally experienced are Searchers 2.0 and a visionary recut of Hell. Now, with this lost gem, it's clear that this was one filmmaker whose ambition failed to gel with what '80s Tinseltown had in mind. Thanks to home video, that era's loss is our gain.
Going against his father's wishes, young Pedro Rojas (Roberto Sosa) decides to become a Mexican patrullero - a highway patrolman. While the pay is limited and the possibility of advancement small, he believes in the honor of duty. One day, he stops a farmer named Griselda (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) for illegally transporting workers. Soon, they are married. Pedro then discovers the dangers and personal pitfalls of being the sole strong arm of the law in a remote area of the country that is overrun with lawlessness and corruption. He starts drinking and takes up with a kind prostitute named Maribel (Vanessa Bauche). When his best friend has a fatal run in with some drug dealers, however, Pedro disavows his responsibility and prepares for revenge...the only way he knows how.
As with the other lost entries in Alex Cox's oeuvre, Highway Patrolman is a revelation. It indicates that this complicated artist, a man who literally gained international fame and lost it within a significantly short period of time, was unfair judged and critically castigated. Today, the Criterion Collection champions his oddly effective Walker, whereas two decades back, it was seen as misguided enough to warrant exile. Sure, Straight to Hell was an indulgence, but it the DIY world of punk (where it found most of its cast), it was eventually embraced and later became a benchmark for true outsider cinema. It was as if Cox purposely tried to ruin his reputation by making the kind of movies he wanted, and the industry responded with the kind of professional admonishment that few survive. It happens all the time. Michael Cimino is still paying for Heaven's Gate, and in many ways, Cox continues of suffer - even without bankrupting an entire company or forcing the firing of many studio suits.
All past problems aside, Highway Patrolman is the necessary link in the filmmaker's forced reinvention. It is an unique experience, one that often feels like a documentary doused with farce. For the most part, Cox gives us the heat and vibe of Mexican corruption, a lingering desert wind of wasted lives and worried looks. Pedro may think he can survive without being stained by his assignment, but he quickly learns that everything about a patrolman is painted in bribes, kick-backs, and pale promises. Highly comic moments ensue. The way in which the story handles his marriage suggests its hasty nature. The manner in which his wife turns from support to strumpet is equally enlightening. Once he hooks up with the pretty prostitute with a growing drug problem, Pedro is doomed. Highway Patrolman then becomes an exercise in watching one man slowly destroy himself - both internally and externally. For every beating or gunshot wound, our lead loses another part of his soul.
Utilizing an arch aesthetic approach - something called plano secuencia, or uninterrupted shots via dolly, tracking, Stedicam, or handheld camera - Cox gets right into the mix. He maneuvers in and around situations and circumstances. This allows the more typical cinematic devices (a long shot of Pedro crossing over a massive ravine on a rickety bridge) to really shine. Also important is the casting. Cox uses local talent, avoiding real acting bravado to get a more earthy, textural feel to the performances. Even the occasional lapses into amateurism provides a prescient spark. While the story can seem a bit scattered and sectional (there is a real vignette style to the narrative at first), it all comes together in the end. There, we see how simple Pedro's aims were...and how complicated the results are. Highway Patrolman doesn't strive for a happy ending. Instead, it earns its rewards the hard way - just like the man who made it.
As part of a fascinating revival of Cox's work, Microcinema International offers up Highway Patrolman in an excellent DVD package. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, bright and colorful with lots of vibrancy and drive. Cox's control of the image is never in question and many sequences sizzle with South of the Border atmosphere.
On the sound side of things, Highway Patrolman delivers a wonderful Dolby Digital Stereo mix which balances the needs of the enigmatic soundtrack with the Spanish dialogue perfectly. English subtitles do a decent job in the translation, though those familiar with the language will hear more than one liberty being taken (especially when it comes to curse words).
The added content begins with a near definitive DVD commentary track which really paints a portrait of Cox, and his career, in flux. With the help of producer Lorenzo O'Brien, we are walked through the beginnings of this film, as well as the personal and professional problems that had to be overcome. Similarly, a mini-documentary (functioning as a kind of making-of) fills in many of the missing years' blanks. There are a pair of additional featurettes which also add to our understanding of the movie and its subject. Considering its rarity and the man who made it, the bonus features here are a treasure trove of insight.
Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Highway Patrolman proves that Alex Cox didn't leave the limelight on purpose. Instead, he was pushed out by bean counters more interested in box office and commerciality than art and its practitioners. There is nothing here that would warrant rejection under the current studio system except for the subject matter, approach, and overall payoff. In Tinseltown, everything must be neat and tidy. Answers must be easy and issues recognizable and readily overcome. For our titular hero, nothing could be further from the truth. The same can also be said for the man who brought him to life. Those incapable of living within the system seem destined to be destroyed by it. This is the fate of our harried highway patrolman, and Alex Cox specifically. Too bad. Film fans deserve better.