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With: Roberto Sosa, Bruno Bichir, Vanessa Bauche, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Malena Doria, Towi Islas
Written by: Lorenzo O'Brien
Directed by: Alex Cox
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Spanish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 12/28/1991

Highway Patrolman (1992)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Roadside Abstraction

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The British director Alex Cox became a cult legend with Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986), but since then he has had a difficult time finding much of an audience, cult or otherwise. Of all his films, the simple, funny, poignant Highway Patrolman probably had the best chance, but -- like many films by misunderstood directors -- it suffered from distribution troubles.

Shot in Mexico for a low budget, it was completed in 1991 and shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 1992. It opened in New York a year later, in 1993, and a year after that in San Francisco. I missed it during its run, and waited to see it on video. But that never happened. The movie simply disappeared -- until today. Microcinema has finally given it an official U.S. DVD release.

Probably the other thing that counts against the movie is the fact that it's entirely in Spanish with English subtitles. It's also not as outrageous as Cox's other films, but once you start watching, it will be difficult to take your eyes off the bizarre little title character.

Roberto Sosa stars as Pedro, who completes his training and proudly joins the highway patrol. His entire family supports him, except for an absent father that refuses to attend the graduation ceremony. Pedro is a small guy, wiry, who wears his boots, gloves and sunglasses like magnifying glasses: they make him feel bigger. He walks bigger and behaves with more confidence, even though he still looks like a puffed-up rooster.

On the job, Pedro discovers that there's a fine line between good guys and bad guys. He easily takes to bending the rules. In his first few minutes, he pulls over a woman who then cries hysterically. Pedro lets her go free, and she reveals that it was all an act. Later he pulls over a lady farmer, Griselda (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), transporting her workers in a truck, and she marries Pedro (in a series of quick sequences, almost as if it were out of Pedro's power).

He also becomes involved with a favorite prostitute, Maribel (Vanessa Bauche), and tries to help her kick drugs and get home to her family. Finally, his best friend Anibal (Bruno Bichir) is killed in a drug deal and Pedro prepares for his revenge. It may sound like these events unfold in a logical, plot-driven way, but Cox lets them unfold almost randomly, in pieces, with various unrelated incidents in-between.

The deadpan tone underlines all these disparate scenes, as well as Pedro's unflappable resolve. Even after he's shot, he spends the rest of the film lurching purposefully on a wounded leg. Yet Cox does not ridicule him; he seems to genuinely like him, and he becomes perhaps the warmest protagonist in the director's entire canon. Cox's oddball touches come in only once, when a weird skeletal figure sitting on a pile of ashes suddenly appears in the middle of Pedro's therapy session. More commonly, we get moments like the closing shot, a road sign that translates into "Paying Taxes Is Participating." The combination of all these forces takes what could be a downbeat story and makes it darkly funny, and yet somewhat strangely touching.

Cox made a subsequent movie in Mexico, Death and the Compass (1992), in English.

Microcinema's DVD comes with an Alex Cox commentary track, a brief featurette, and Cox's UCLA student film, the 40-minute Edge City (1980), also known as Sleep Is for Sissies. Cox also provides a short video explaining why he thinks Edge City and Highway Patrolman are a good match.

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