Highway Patrolman / Three Businessmen Review
Following the failure of his idiosyncratic 1987 biopic Walker, Alex Cox went quiet on the filmmaking front for some years. There was always his presenter role on the BBC’s Moviedrome of course, but it took until 1991 for another film to emerge and until 1994 for it to arrive in the UK. Moreover, Highway Patrolman, as it became known, was just as wayward as the works which had preceded it. Shot in Mexico on many of the locations of Cox faves such as El Topo, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch, it also utilised the Spanish language and many of the country’s top actors. Indeed, during his commentary Cox refers to the film as “the Mexican equivalent of The Towering Inferno”.
Not that Highway Patrolman is in any way a populist work or even a genre piece. Certainly, it occupies the same milieu as countless Mexican cop thrillers, yet it does so in a subversive manner. We may follow a cadet on the route to becoming a patrolman via his training and early experiences, but this is most definitely not an action movie. It’s a film in which the lead character’s best friend dies, yet doesn’t offer up the revenge; a film without the redemptive narrative arc which is so often the norm.
Of course, we see how one event leads to the other, but the concerns are different. For starters there’s a mocking eye cast on the whole “patrolman” subgenre. We witness a system governed by quotas, machismo and fierce national pride – only for each to be punctured. In following our patrolman’s domestic life we get a clearer view of the gradual erosion of his idealism and purity, if you will, as he succumbs to bribes, a junkie hooker mistress, a disabling gunshot wound and a more general sense of impotence. There’s almost a taste of the midlife crisis movie, yet lead Robert Sosa is far too baby faced for it to attain this dimension and as such Highway Patrolman is perhaps rendered even more tragic.
The reason why this works so well comes down to Cox’s filmmaking techniques. In previous efforts he’d experimented with a long take style which finally achieved its fruition here. As Nick James pointed out in a Sight and Sound article timed to coincide with the film’s UK release in September of 1994, “the rule was that he would cut away only if there was a time or geographic change”. Yet importantly, the concept never becomes a gimmick; indeed it becomes near invisible unlike the showier long take set-pieces to be found in Robert Altman’s The Player, say, Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas or Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Rather it serves a specific function and that is to allow us to pick apart the characters and the situations onscreen. They’ve got nowhere to hide as it were and so the realism quotient is upped, highlighting the inherent sadness in much which occurs. Moreover, they also allow us to soak up the film’s marvellous atmosphere. Aided by a superb score by Zander Schloss we are able to pick up a genuine love for the landscape and this distinctive culture. Indeed, Cox is very much the outsider here (he even casts himself as a German beer drinking “gringo”), yet when it produces results such as this, that’s no bad thing.
The long take approach continues with Three Businessmen (made in 1999, before which Cox had made Death and the Compass as well as The Winner, which he effectively disowned), though the results here are quite different. Again, it isn’t an action film, but then neither is it subverting one. Rather it’s a slow burner of a film, heavy on dialogue and ostensibly set in Liverpool, Cox’s hometown. As such it could be read as a personal work (an element aided by the fact that he occupies one of the lead roles) and therefore perhaps closest to Straight to Hell. Indeed, whilst it may not be quite so indulgent, it nonetheless retains the ‘take it or leave it’ qualities.
Three Businessmen is undoubtedly Cox’s most experimental work to date; time and again the spectre of Luis Buñuel rises around his output (The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie are both mentioned in the booklet, whilst Cox wrote a piece on the filmmaker’s Mexican output for Sight and Sound in 1995), and for this reviewer it’s L’Age d’or which springs to mind. Whereas that film saw a couple repeatedly interrupted in their efforts to satisfy their lust, here we find a pair (later a trio) of businessmen unable to find a bite to eat. Standing in their way are pettiness, panic attacks, vegetarianism and the fact that Liverpool isn’t quite what it seems – over the 77 minutes of screen time it also encompasses Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Tokyo and the desert. It could, perhaps, also be classed as Waiting for Godot on foot. After all, the dialogue and situation are equally integral when attempting to attain some understanding.
What we have is a kind of freeform narration to accompany the freeform narrative. Our businessmen share the same anonymity: they’re both art dealers yet this never offers up any information of interest; they’re white collar and so ultimately bland; and they appear to be embodying quintessential elements of their national stereotype – Miguel Sandoval the irascible, borderline obnoxious American and Cox the pent-up Brit. Yet when juxtaposed with the probing manner of the long take style, we’re able to pick up deeper characterisations and they’re not especially pretty…
Listen to the Pray for Rain score and you’ll notice a blend of the epic and the sinister, elements which are also true of Three Businessmen itself. The epic qualities make themselves known through the globe-trotting, whilst the sinister edges seem to imbue everything. There’s an incredibly dystopian undercurrent to proceedings courtesy of its talk of “fear and despair”, its plastic food and plastic cards, its drug dealers and fibre optics. Indeed, whilst the ending may hint at an upbeat direction, this is clearly an extremely paranoid film and undoubtedly the least optimistic film Cox has made to date.
As with the BFI’s other Alex Cox double bill, which paired Straight to Hell and Death and the Compass, the two films here are taken from identical prints as those used for their previous individual releases. As such, both are presented anamorphically whilst Highway Patrolman looks superb and Three Businessmen less so. The fact that the films now come on dual-layered discs as opposed to DVD-5s helps matters a little – the colours on Patrolman are now crisper and even more vivid – though Businessmen still struggles with a fuzzy image and noticeable grain. However, it is also worth noting that Cox himself approved the transfers on both discs, so it would be churlish to complain too much.
As for the soundtracks, the BFI have improved on previous incarnations by offering up the original Dolby Surround mixes and not the DD2.0 offerings which had appeared in the past. This means that the scores sound much better, the dialogue is a touch clearer and the accompanying commentaries don’t have to compete with the sound coming from the films themselves. More importantly, Highway Patrolman now comes with optional English subtitles, and not the burnt-in ones which had previously appeared.
The extras similarly blend the old and the new. Cox’s commentaries with writer-producers Lorenzo O’Brien and Tod Davis, respectively, are once again present and still make for hugely enjoyable, entertaining listens. Anyone wishing to know more about Mexican cinema would be advised to listen to the former as Cox proves himself to be something of an expert. As for the newer additions, here we find a Cox-directed featurette accompanying both films. Highway Patrolman has ‘Patrulleros & Patrulleras’, whilst Three Businessmen offers up ‘How to Watch This Film: A User’s Guide’. Both are decidedly rough-hewn (the latter especially), yet they’re enthusiastically done and provide more than a little background into their respective film’s productions. Admittedly, much of this can be learned from the commentaries, but this still marks an improvement over previous releases. Rounding off the package we also have new liner notes by Steven Paul Davies, author of Alex Cox: Film Anarchist and optional English subtitles on everything: films, commentaries and featurettes.
Note that the ratings in the sidebar are for both films/presentations combined - 'Highway Patrolman' being superior to 'Three Businessmen' on both counts and warranting a nine for both its film rating and video rating.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:11:55