The prize for best direction of 1991 ought to have gone to Alex Cox, whose visual economy in this show is to be applauded. Cox’s camera is fluid, expressive yet technically invisible and unencumbered with fancy tricks: the frame never goes static, yet the film has only a couple of hundred cuts! Filmed in Spanish in Mexico, we get a non-cynical image of a culture and a story that’s universally applicable. Mexican neorealism? Roberto Sosa is an idealistic young recruit, who learns that reality is pretty rough out on the lonesome, deadly highway.
KL Studio Classics
1991 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date April 16, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Roberto Sosa, Bruno Bichir, Vanessa Bauche, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Malena Doria, Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Mike Moroff, Jorge Russek.
Cinematography: Miguel Garzón
Film Editor: Carlos Puente
Song: Zander Schloss
Written and produced by Lorenzo O’Brien
Directed by Alex Cox
“This is the first film I’ve made where the hero believes in God.”
I think that was a good choice for director Alex Cox. Highway Patrolman (El patrullero) may be his best film, as it rises from an interest in a cultural reality, as opposed to a a worship of movie lore. The undeniably talented Cox transcended the semi-punk L.A. scene with the comic Repo Man, and his Sid and Nancy became the only non-documentary movie about the punk scene to be embraced by filmgoers. Embracing Sam Peckinpah made for some fun pictures (Straight to Hell) but didn’t develop Cox’s career in a particularly useful way, although his political/historical opus Walker was so genuinely anti-Imperialist that Universal did everything they could to see that it didn’t get shown. And Universal was the studio that proudly promoted the blatantly anti-American films of Costa-Gavras!
Highway Patrolman relates the adventures of an idealistic young man who wants to do good as a cop on the open highway. Pedro Rojas (Roberto Sosa) graduates proudly and is assigned to the rough roads in rural desert country. At first he cuts a straight profile, refusing bribes and keeping his nose clean, but the demands of his superiors for ticket quotas (“No matter what they’ve done, they’ve always broken the law!”) and the general corruption take their toll. Even his pal Anibal (Bruno Bechir) is cutting corners, and warning him not to interfere with drug runners. Pedro gets married to the demanding Griselda (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) but also begins drinking and begins a relationship with the drug-addicted prostitute Maribel (Vanessa Bauche). He’s also wounded in the line of duty. A tragedy eventually sets Pedro on a personal mission outside his job description — to nail the drug runners that killed someone he cares about.
The description sounds like a generic action picture, and Alex Cox gleefully explains that the movie got made because a Japanese investor envisioned the script as a ‘Mexican samurai film. That’s true, in that Pedro Rojas enters a corrupt system and works out his own personal compromise with morality and the law. But Highway Patrolman is much more — it’s the universal story about someone trying to do good in a world organized on different lines. When Pedro acts noble — taking truant kids back to school, shooting a mad dog — the effect is almost absurd. He ends up like everyone else, living a compromised life where sneaking around keeps things calm, and acting virtuous only makes people suspect you.
The characterizations make an impact because no ironic or sarcastic attitude is imposed on the story. Roberto Sosa’s idealist patrolman begins with his chest puffed out in pride, and slowly goes the way of all flesh. But instead of falling into degradation, he simply assumes his place in the corruption around him. Neither of the women played by Vanessa Bauche and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez are ‘types.’ Maribel does what she does to survive, but Griselda clearly pursues Pedro for economic reasons as well: as soon as they’re married she complains that there’s not enough money. Pedro doesn’t need to be told that she wants him to start taking bribes.
The absurdity is in the system. Officially, all the cops are on the up-and-up, but they are also in a bind where they can’t be honest and keep their jobs. And who hasn’t had a job where you’re expected to cheat in one way or another, even though nobody acknowledges it?
Alex Cox’s direction is phenomenal; it’s really worthy of study. There is no coverage, and most scenes consist of just one fluid shot. Excellent cameramen handhold the camera as they walk. The long takes are not ostentatious. There are no show-off moves: the camera position shifts naturally to encompass ‘coverage’ angles in one unbroken move. Even the major action scenes use this principle, which makes everything in the film seem all the more real. It’s likely that this worked well for the actors too — there are no ‘cheats’ of action. Cox also uses his crane extremely well, and never ostentatiously; Delmer Daves could have learned a lesson from this Englishman. I think both John Ford and Max Ophüs would approve mightily.
Only once or twice does Cox go experimental on us. Pedro has issues with a father who has disavowed him over his choice of profession, and Pedro’s thoughts causes him to materialize. One scene begins with a surreal, unexplainable ‘thing’ in the frame with Pedro and a police doctor — a thing that disappears across a jarring jump cut. Buñuel would approve as well.
El patrullero is a Mexican movie made mostly by Mexicans but with an English director and writer-producer, both of whom spoke Spanish fluently. That makes a big difference — it’s obvious that the Mexicans embraced the show because a) Cox was providing jobs rather than ripping people off, and b) the screenplay is sympathetic to its Mexican characters.
I’m not sure a great many viewers saw Highway Patrolman; it’s actually something of a minor masterpiece, a perfect blend of art and action picture.Critics didn’t jump up to celebrate it, likely because in 1991 it just wasn’t possible to sell the mainstream on a Spanish language feature like this. Several of the negative notices took on an attitude of, ‘we want Mr. Repo man back,’ dictating to Alex Cox where his auteurist duties lay. Some reviewers that liked the movie described it as a black comedy, when it’s actually as un-ironic as can be. Pedro shoots a mad dog, and instead of being grateful, a woman demands that he pay for a chicken that got shot as well. That’s not an exaggeration in the least. La mordida (The bite, aka the bribe) is built into everything in the culture. I see nothing exaggerated in the movie — even the violent action is understated.
The impressive joke in all this is that Alex Cox and his crew invented their own Highway Patrol organization, with its own cars, uniforms, badges, everything. It seems real to us, but it’s all made up from scratch. The real Mexican highway patrol wouldn’t cooperate, because the script asserts that most highway patrolmen quit after only a couple of years. It probably worked out for the better for the movie, to not have the local officials breathing down their neck over issues of public image. Remember that on The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges was plagued by industry types that insisted that the clothing of the peasants in the movie always be clean and spotless. That’s what happens when you go to Mexico, swing your weight around, and then make a movie about American gunmen ‘rescuing’ the incompetent locals. The officials reading the Patrullero screenplay likely responded to its honesty and compassion. They were probably disposed to like Alex Cox too, after seeing his Walker.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Highway Patrolman is a real beauty. I only saw the film once on a bad VHS tape back in the day, and liked it without knowing that it looked beautiful as well. The widescreen image is immaculate — I don’t think there are any opticals to take away from the ‘direct cinema’ look. We particularly like that little artifice is used — when the scene calls for a pre-dawn sky, they simply filmed at the right time of day.
The show uses an end title tune with a Patrullero theme but most of the music comes out of scenes naturally. Again, Cox goes for a truthful look at the policeman’s dusty desert world, un-hyped with soundtrack trickery.
The extras start with Alex Cox’s UCLA film, a 35-minute tale of offbeat crime and confusion in a splintered L.A. scene. Cox plays a main role. I immediately recognized my professor and Film Archive chief Robert Rosen in a big part and coming off well. I think Rosen would eventually take charge of the full film school; I’d seen him in other student efforts back in ’74 and ’75.
The director offers a new introduction (no spoilers) but the rest of the extras were made about twenty years ago, as we hear that actor Jorge Russek ‘died recently.’ Video featurettes give us a good look at Cox’s support team, all pros that specialized in Mexican filming for local and foreign producers. Actor Roberto Sosa shows us a different, lively personality (and long hair). Several crew members doubled as actors, taking their place alongside pros like Pedro Armendáriz Jr..
The commentary with Cox and O’Brien covers a lot of interesting production material. We learn that the movie came together when the pair scouted alternate Mexican locations in case Walker couldn’t shoot in Nicaragua. A driver told them of his wild adventures as a patrullero, and the movie’s events were almost all taken from the man’s stories. The pair delight in telling us when we’re looking at locations used for The Wild Bunch, and they explain several scenes that were were dropped, and why. The character Anibal was meant to be supporting three different families, and the ending was originally much different. Cox listened to his collaborators, who told him that his ‘touching, noble’ finish just wouldn’t be credible in real life.
They also talk about the male fantasy of ‘saving a prostitute,’ which was common among the highway patrolmen they talked to. That universal notion certainly shows up in American films, like Taxi Driver.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Commentary with Alex Cox and Lorenzo O’Brien, Alex Cox UCLA film Edge City aka No Sleep for Sissies, featurettes Patrulleros & Patrulleras – Featurette (35:48); From Edge City to Mapimi (5:31); Pamphlet essay Even Stones Bleed Out Here: Highway Patrolman Rides Again by Simon Abrams, 2018 Re-release Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson