FILM / Taking the slow lane to success: Despite the promise of his early films, Alex Cox was going nowhere. Until Highway Patrolman. Kevin Jackson reveals how the director of Repo Man has reclaimed critical triumph from ideological defeat

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The Independent Culture
Another triumph for the British cinema: the latest film by a young(ish) English director opens in Los Angeles and is lauded by the local press with such extravagant phrases as 'superbly structured', 'an epic quality, moral as well as visual' and 'beautiful . . . a classic odyssey'. Before summoning up the crates of celebratory bubbly, however, patriots should reflect on one or two qualifying details: this 'British' film was written by a Peruvian, financed by Japan and shot in Mexico, using an all-local, all-Hispanophone cast and crew. Oh yes: it was also completed in 1991, and has taken three years to struggle its way back to its director's native land.

Highway Patrolman (El Patrullero) is the fifth unpredictable feature in the strange career of Alex Cox, who first scrawled his signature on to the world's screens a decade ago with Repo Man. This was a young man's film about a young man's worldly education, with the sophomoric Otto (Emilio Estevez) being shown the oily ropes of the car repossession trade by a grizzled, bitterly misanthropic mentor (played, almost inevitably, by Harry Dean Stanton).

Ragged, fast moving, inventive and weirdly amusing, Repo Man was like an amalgam of B- movie thriller plotting and Z-movie science fiction gimmicks, the whole thing set to a mordant soundtrack by the likes of Iggy Pop and Suicidal Tendencies. Made when Cox was barely out of film school, it took everyone by surprise, and remains one of the very few movies to have caught something of the rowdy glee and brutal wit of punk music. Critics, naturally, predicted great things for this young Liverpudlian.

Cox kept up his punk connections in his next two films. Sid and Nancy was a skilled and atmospheric, if rather foolishly glamorised account of the fatal affair between Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman), the bassist for the Sex Pistols, and his junkie inamorata Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb).

Straight to Hell, a jokey reworking of the spaghetti westerns Cox had loved as a teenager, was rather less well received, though some viewers warmed to its flaky brand of humour, and the peculiarly English mock-stoicism in the valedictory words of one of its leading characters - played by Joe Strummer of the Clash - as he lies dying in a pool of blood: 'Still, mustn't grumble.' Oddly enough, it did very well in Japan.

And then came Walker: a film made, Cox says, in the hope of 'changing the world' for the better, but which mostly succeeded in changing Cox's place in the world for the worse. Financed by Universal, Walker was shot in the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas, and was a (to put it gently) unconventional retelling of the United States's first intervention there. Almost everyone hated it.

Conservatives hated it because they sniffed, correctly, its uncompromisingly leftist animus. 'Well, it does take as its premiss that democracy is a fraud perpetrated on gullible and nave people . . .' (Cox's production company is mischievously called Commies from Mars, Inc; he also enjoys jokes about being like Private Eye's in- house lefty moron, Dave Spart.) Liberals hated it because they thought its low humour and knockabout alienation devices - such as Walker (Ed Harris) gorging himself lycanthropically on human innards - trivialised important subject matter. And most of the few neutral punters who actually saw the thing seemed to be baffled by it, though Cox insists that Walker has done his reputation in most of Latin America no harm at all.

Since then, Cox has mostly been struggling in vain to get projects off the ground. Some years, he says, his only real income has been from the BBC, which has been paying him to present its Moviedrome series. He spent a long time trying to make The Battle of Torremolinos, from 'a wonderful script, originally written for Lindsay Anderson, about British and German tourists fighting on the beaches of Spain. I also tried to make a film about the trade in infant body parts for transplants, but that didn't go down well either . . .'

Cox did manage one television film - an adaptation of Borges's short story 'Death and the Compass' for the BBC. Otherwise, though, the years since Walker have yielded just one completed project, Highway Patrolman - a film which returns to some of the themes of Repo Man, and a film which, if reviewed as well throughout the world as it was in Los Angeles back in February, might just wipe away the memory of Walker and put Cox back into the fast lane.

It tells a simple enough tale, about Pedro (Roberto Sosa), a young Mexican from a poor background with impossibly high ethical standards - 'He'd like to be a character in a John Ford western, he'd like there to be a bad guy he can find and punish.' After graduating top of his police class, Pedro is assigned to a tough route and finds himself besieged by temptations and pressures of all kinds: bribery, the drugs racket, the wholesome charms of his new bride Griselda, the more dangerous charms of a drug-addicted prostitute, the rage to avenge the murder of his best friend, Anibal, by traffickers.

This was a story, Cox says, which he had been developing for a long time: 'The process began in 1986 or 1987, when we were looking for locations for Walker, and our driver was a Mexican who had formerly been in the federal highway patrol. And his tales of the open road, and also of his domestic life - how he'd ended up, like a lot of Mexican men, supporting two families - were very interesting. So eventually, when all the other projects had foundered, I went back to Mexico to find that guy and interview him. Lorenzo (O'Brien, the producer-screenwriter) used our interviews as the basis for Highway Patrolman.'

O'Brien wrote the first draft of the script in Spanish, but then had to translate it into English 'because it seemed as if our best bet for getting it made was actually the Japanese] Thanks to the Japanese distributor of Straight to Hell, we got money from a huge trading company - dollars 1.2m just turned up in our bank account one morning, so it was, 'Oh, wow] We have all this money, now we'll really have to make the film]' '

In many ways, Cox thinks, the story of Highway Patrolman is like an allegory of his own career over the past few years. 'This film is more sophisticated than Walker, because Walker was the film of some people who believe (Dave Spart voice) Yur, you know, film can create social change] And then, five years later, we're making a film where nobody believes any kind of social change is possible. We lost] But we still have to make films, and so our progress is like the progress of Pedro, who starts out believing in certain things, and has to come to an accommodation with the world as it is.'

Highway Patrolman is as graceful an accommodation to reality as one might wish: it's lucid, often engrossing and shot in a distinctive manner, with extremely long, swooping and snaking shots that look as if they were executed on Steadicam but in fact owe everything to the tireless muscles of Cox's Mexican cinematographer, Miguel Garzon. No wonder Cox seems so unexpectedly cheerful in his self-proclaimed ideological defeat. However, if it's really true that the films he is trying to make at the moment are a reflection of his political development, then we ought perhaps to be alarmed at the next movie Cox has in mind. His burning ambition at the moment, he says, is to make a film of Shakespeare's Richard III.

'Highway Patrolman' opens next Friday

(Photograph omitted)