Once upon a time Alex Cox was a director who seemed assured of a bright future in Hollywood. His first film, 1984's Repo Man, gained him cult status. His second, 1986's Sid and Nancy, established Cox as a gifted, powerful filmmaker with a career as ambitious as he cared to envision it. He appeared to be an artist on the brink of greatness.
But he never got there. Flush from the success of Sid and Nancy, Cox plunged into a smug, self-indulgent satire of spaghetti Westerns called Straight to Hell, a title that aptly sums up the direction toward which Cox's career veered. The film was a critical and commercial bomb whose most noteworthy element was a tragically hip cast featuring Dennis Hopper, Jim Jarmusch, and a panoply of rock icons -- Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, Grace Jones, and the Pogues. Cox followed that up with 1988's equally disastrous Walker, a bizarre comic biography of William Walker, the American mercenary who became president of Nicaragua for a short time in the Nineteenth Century. If you have trouble envisioning the comic possibilities in Walker's story, don't feel bad. Cox did, too.
Suddenly the producers who wined and dined Cox after Sid and Nancy weren't returning his phone calls. The director's attitude didn't help any. "The movie business feels it must support war and encourage white yuppies to have babies. If you don't buy into that, you are ultimately excluded," Cox once said, according to Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion. "If you're a fascist in Hollywood, you work with great regularity. If you're not, you don't. So I don't." Needless to say, these views did little to endear him to studio executives.
It wasn't until 1992 that the director made another theatrical feature. Not surprisingly he did it outside of the Hollywood system. Way outside. Mexico to be exact.
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El patrullero (Highway Patrolman) is the story of a stubborn young highway patrol officer in a remote area of Mexico who battles to do the right thing in the face of rampant corruption. If you were one of those reviewers who always read greater significance into movies than the filmmakers intended, you could make the case that El patrullero is an allegory for Cox's own battles with Hollywood. Otherwise you would probably just hail it as a taut, superbly acted and directed morality play. Either way, it's a potent and disquieting piece of work.
The story flirts with cliche, but never quite caves in to the temptation. On the surface, Lorenzo O'Brien's screenplay appears to be a classic Western, updated and modernized. Roberto Sosa plays Pedro Rojas, the highway patrolman of the title, who must contend with everything from kids playing hooky to drug dealers with automatic weapons. Pedro rescues a fallen woman from a cathouse, endures good-natured ribbing from a colorful sidekick whose character flaw proves fatal, and sets up a climactic gunfight with the bad guys to settle the score. All the elements are there, right down to the scene in which a disillusioned Pedro tosses his badge on his commanding officer's desk and walks away.
What sets this film apart (aside from Sosa's thoroughly winning performance and Cox's spiky direction) is its morally ambiguous core. Pedro holds out against the lure of easy money until faced with a dilemma: maintain his integrity or feed his baby. The hooker he saves is his mistress. He rescues her from her drug dependency and her trade, but she has two kids, and as with his own offspring, someone has to put the meals on the table. The romantic gestures were nice, but the bottom line is he can support her or get out of the way. She's not much different from Mrs. Rojas in that respect. After Pedro accepts his first big bribe and tries to assuage the guilt with a night of debauchery, his wife first threatens to castrate him if he ever dishonors her again, then apologizes profusely when he hands her a wad of bills. "Why didn't you tell me you were working?" she smiles.
It's that kind of movie A laser-sharp characterizations, traditional plot devices, murky moral dilemmas. Just as Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven paid its respects to the Western genre while at the same time transcending it, El patrullero goes beyond the bounds of either the traditional Western or the typical cop movie. When you hear the siren, pull over. Alex Cox is barreling down the fast lane and he's making up for lost time.