Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Much as I admire Sid and Nancy, & love Repo Man, my favorite movie from nervy Brit director Alex Cox—it topped my Top Ten list in Phoenix New Times the year it played here in Phoenix, as I recall—is his little-known Highway Patrolman, or El Patrullero. I think it’s one of the most neglected movies of the ‘90s, & one of the simplest & best of all cop movies.

A Mexican police drama almost entirely in Spanish, directed by a Brit, & written & produced by a Peruvian-Irish-American, Lorenzo O’Brien, is not the sort of thing you see every day. But what’s really unusual about Highway Patrolman, paradoxically, is how straightforward it is. Cox eschews the surreal flights & outré eccentricities of his other films in favor of a standard action-thriller structure, & lets the change of scenery drain off its banality.

The title character, played by Roberto Sosa, is named Pedro Rojas, but he might as well be named Pedro Verde—when we first meet him, fresh from the academy, he’s comically green. Even though his instructors make it clear that he’s a cog in a kleptocracy—they tell him flatly, in the opening scene, of anyone he chooses to pull over, that “they’ve always broken the law,” & it’s up to him only to figure out how—he initially tries, as he prowls the desolate Durango roads to which he’s been assigned, to behave honorably.

We soon see that not only does the system make it impossible for Pedro to stay pure, but that the mere attempt makes him ridiculous (though likably so). The episodes which follow dramatize the erosion of this idealism, as Pedro gets married, has a kid, gets wounded in a shooting, drinks too much, begins an affair with a soulful prostitute. Eventually, his insistence upon clinging to a few shreds of decency endangers his life.

Police forces in America tend, even when they aren’t overtly corrupt or brutal, to favor the interests of economic or racial elites. Even when we understand this, American audiences accept cops as movie & TV heroes, yet we have no problem seeing cops in other countries, especially someplace like Mexico, depicted as uniformed gangsters. Without suggesting that foreign police are paragons, Highway Patrolman, through its guileless title character, can gently push us to reconsider the stereotypes of our fiction, & how they shape our view of the real world.

Don’t misunderstand, it’s a perfectly enjoyable picture—tightly scripted, evenly-paced, funny, exciting—all on the surface, with no subtextual cultural analysis. Yet by being entirely conventional in an unconventional context, Highway Patrolman manages to seem brilliantly original.

Kudos to Microcinema International for making this small gem available on DVD, for the first time in North America. The disc includes commentary by Cox & O’Brien, a couple of documentaries, & Cox’s early short Edge City, aka Sleep is for Sissies.

By the way, Microcinema International is running a holiday sale through the end of the year—you can get Highway Patrolman or any of the other interesting releases in their catalog at 40 to 50% off, details here.

RIP to another self-consciously provocative Brit filmmaker, Ken Russell, passed on Sunday at 84.

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