“Highway Patrolman” (at the Nuart) is maverick director Alex Cox’s finest film to date and represents his best work since his terrific debut feature, the funky, surreal 1984 “Repo Man.” This film, in Spanish with English subtitles, opens just the way one would expect of Cox--with a darkly satirical take on his subject, an idealistic young Mexican’s training at the National Highway Patrol Academy in Mexico City. But the British-born Cox and his producer-screenwriter, Lorenzo O’Brien, a Peruvian raised in Mexico, gradually get more serious once their wiry, wistful hero (Roberto Sosa) takes up his first assignment in a remote town in Durango.
It would seem that working in a foreign language has given Cox the necessary freedom and detachment not to worry about being hip and to take the plunge into classic screen storytelling, backed by O’Brien’s superbly structured script.
While it rightly skewers American hypocrisy and complicity in Mexican drug-trafficking, “Highway Patrolman” abounds in the timeless virtues of traditional filmmaking. Indeed, there is an epic quality, moral as well as visual, to the hero’s odyssey that recalls the Westerns of John Ford and such John Huston films as “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Under the Volcano.”
Almost immediately Sosa’s earnest, likable Pedro Rojas discovers the impossibility of adhering to the straight and narrow. On the one hand, he’s too underpaid to resist accepting the occasional “mordita” once he’s a husband and father; on the other, a strict enforcement of the law becomes a hardship and injustice upon people who are simply struggling to survive. If he is to survive, Pedro must learn to steer a sensible course between extremes and discover within himself his own strength and his own code of behavior.
To be sure, he will be put to the test time and again, and in the process he discovers his sticking point is drugs, which are transported regularly through the region and which are all too available to the locals. Although he marries the hearty, plain-spoken Griselda (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, who has the looks and personality of Mercedes Ruehl), he is drawn to the beautiful but drug-addicted prostitute Maribel (Vanessa Bauche).
Sosa is such a focused actor that we’re able to believe firmly in Pedro--to never lose sight of the fact that he is an ordinary man, dogged in his determination and intense in his concentration, but in no way a superman. In its way, “Highway Patrolman” is a coming-of-age film, both for its hero and for Cox himself.
“Highway Patrolman” is also a beautiful, gritty film, shot by Miguel Garzon and scored evocatively by Zander Schloss. It’s steeped in the atmosphere of vast, desert-like vistas slashed by highways sizzling in the heat. A lurid, seedy “Zona Rosa” brothel contrasts with Griselda’s large and inviting old family home. While it’s a sad commentary on the state of foreign-language film distribution that “Highway Patrolman,” which surfaced at UCLA in November, 1992, as part of a contemporary Mexican film series and which bears a 1991 copyright, is only now being released, we can be only be grateful that it has arrived at last.
‘Highway Patrolman’ (‘El Patrullero’)
Roberto Sosa: Pedro Bruno Bichir: Anibal Vanessa Bauche: Maribel Zaide Silvia Gutierrez: Griselda
A First Look Pictures release. Director Alex Cox. Writer-producer Lorenzo O’Brien. Executive producer Kuniaki Negishi. Cinematographer Miguel Garzon. Editor Carlos Puente. Costumes Manuela Loaeza. Music Zander Schloss. Production designer Cecilia Montiel. Art directors Bryce Perrin, Homero Espinoza. Set decorator Brigitte Broch. Sound Roberto Munoz. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Times-rated Mature (language, sex, drugs, violence, adult themes). Times guidance: Material is strong without being exploitative; appropriate for teens.