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Law unto himself

After years away from our cinema screens, Alex Cox is well and truly back on form with Highway Patrolman. Trevor Johnston assesses the film and the career of a genuinely unique talent.

It‘s a description that's a by-word for those who‘ve reached a kind of career twilight zone. but Alex Cox is it has to be said big in Japan. Everywhere else in the world (which. for the purposes of argument will now be taken to exclude Brazil and Peru) reacted to the Moviedrome MC‘s 1987 spaghetti-western- comedy-whatever Straight '1}; Hell as ifthey wished that's exactly where British cinema's lapsed white hope and his non-acting rock ‘n' roll cast would kindly betake themselves pronto. Japanese cineastes. however. took the film to their hearts. and distribution company Cable Hogue named after the Sam Peckinpah movie. of course made enough yen from the release to bankroll a new Alex Cox movie in its entirety.

All of this seems to be coming from an older, wiser Alex Cox, a director now far away from the disposable larkishness of the first half of Sid ’n’ Nancy or the whole of Straight To Hell.

Shot in Spanish in the wilds of the Mexican hinterland and completed as far back as 199 1. Highway Patrolman (or [5/ l’atrullero to give the piece its evocative original title) was written by Cox’s longstanding writing and producing partner. Peruvian Irishman Lorenzo O'Brien. and marks the first film by the lad frotn Merseyside to hit British movie screens in over five years.

Fora man who once featured in trade rag Variety‘s where-are-they-now'.’ ‘Missing Persons‘ file. all this represents a somewhat unlikely resurrection. made all the more remarkable by the fact that Highway Patrolman has deservedly gained some of the best reviews in a filmography that also includes 1984's cult classic Repo Man. the punk chronicle Sid 'n' Nanry and 1988's Nicaraguan-shotjolie de grandeur Walker. the film that appears to have scuppered his Hollywood progress once and for all.

Inspired by the stories told by one of the Walker location scouts about the time he‘d spent as a young man in the Mexican federal highway patrol. the latest and greatest Cox offering features scar-faced Mexican soap opera star Roberto Sosa as a rookie in this elite section of the force. who leaves the training academy with a headful of high ideas and good intentions. The film traces the erosion of youthful

optimism into the pragmatism of maturity. as the daily grind of petty corruption. the hopeless task of cutting drug supply routes and the apparently common strain on Mexican manhood of supporting both wife‘s and mistress‘s families all take their toll of disillusionment.

Shot in long takes that testify to the versatility and endurance of Mexican cinematographer Miguel Garzon. Highway l’atro/man's lack of formal jiggery-pokery serves to emphasise the integrity of the material. Set against the imposineg scraggy lines of the border landscape. it's a film about moral education that boasts the kind of narrative clarity (though from an entirely removed ideological perspective) you might find in. say. John Ford's late 40s cavalry trilogy.

Yes. there are car chases and shoot-outs. expertly staged and shot. but the focus of the film is on meatier matters: what happens when lofty ideals. a man‘s personal weakness and the compromises demanded by the everyday jostie for supremacy? How wide is the gulf between the way we know we should be living our lives and the way we actually do‘.’ In the end. as the excellent Sosa reaches an accommodation with his experience. the film turns elcgiac towards the purity of the values that have lost out. yet recognises the need to simply get on with things and do the best you can on a day-by-day level.

All of this seems to be coming from an older. wiser Alex Cox. a director now far away from the disposable larkishness of the first halfof Sid 'n' Nant‘y or the whole of Straight To Hell. And. while Highway Patrolman seems to share its basic young- man-gets-wise plot kernel with Repo Man. the slightly wiggcd-out. frequently inspired cocktail of

Z-grade sci—fi. urban deprivation road movie. acid casualty conspiracy theorising and copious West Coast hardcore soundtrack that made up his bobbydazzler of a feature debut might almost be the

i work of another man.

sponsored by BACARDI BLAC K.

Highway Patrolman: ‘the latest and greatest Cox offering’ Ten years ago. Cox looked like a bright new star in the British movie firmament: ()xbridge. Bristol and UCLA-educated. he seemed to bring a detached and wry intelligence and wit to quintessentially American form and subject matter and he was big on Iggy Pop too! He was. in short. so hip. the NMIS might very well have invented him. yet somehow his rebellious unwillingness to work within ‘the system‘ relegated him to the fringes of filmic activity. and the movies just didn‘t get any better. Even when Universal did shell out a moderate amount for the historical saga of l85()s American conquistador William Walker. the undoubted pro-Sandinista political fervour of the end result didn't make its undisciplined assemblage of wild anachronisms. jarring shifts in tone and chaotic plotting look any more coherent. Nor did the fact that. as Cox himself has related. ‘We spent about three million dollars of the studio‘s money in a country that America was at war with'. ever do him any favours in Tinseltown. Since Walker’s grudging ‘release‘. the list of Cox‘s unfunded and aborted projects has grown apace and. apart from a BBCZ Screenplay. Borges adaptation Death And The Compass. his sole paid employment for the past while has been the presenter‘s fee for his sometimes perceptive. often maddening critical assessments that have prefaced seven series of the Beeb's worthwhile Moviedrome film slot. In the circumstances. it couldjust be that financial pressures and the sheer desire to get tnore films made may induce a little creative mellowing. but don't hold your breath for the Alex Cox sell-out just yet recently, he‘s been touting around a new screen

version of Shakespeare's Richard III. showcasing Ian

McKellan‘s assumption of the title role. ‘A budget. a budget. my kingdom for a budget‘. anyone? Highway Patrolman opens at the Edinburgh Film/rouse on Friday 9 and at Glasgow Film Theatre

on Friday 2 3 .

16 The List 9—22 September I994