Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, Fri., July 21, 2000
HIGHWAY PATROLMAN(aka El Patrullo)D: Alex Cox (1992); with Roberto Sosa, Bruno Bichir, Vanessa Bauche, Pedro Armendáriz Jr.
FOUR DAYS IN SEPTEMBER(aka O Que é Isso, Companheiro?)D: Bruno Barreto (1997); with Alan Arkin, Fernanda Torres, Pedro Cardoso, Luiz Fernando Guimaraes.
JOHNNY 100 PESOSD: Gustavo Graef-Marino (1993); with Armando Araiza, Patricia Rivera, Willy Semler, Aldo Parodi, Eugenio Morales.
Alex Cox's South-of-the-border cop opera Highway Patrolman takes up a familiar storyline, then gives it a modern twist à la Mexico. Pedro (Sosa) is a young, idealistic cop who makes it through Mexico's federal highway patrol academy near the top of his class. He takes to the lonely highways of the country determined to uphold the law and stay clean and honest. The highway patrol is underpaid, though, and he has a wife with a baby to worry about. Pedro soon comes in contact with the local drug trade and la mordida -- the bribe that greases the wheels of much of Mexico's justice system. Under pressure from his wife, the drug dealers, and his comrades, Pedro refuses to give in; as punishment, he's assigned to the oldest, most battered, slowest car in the fleet. His closest friend is gunned down by narcotistas, but Pedro's ancient Dodge Aspen squad car doesn't allow him to get there in time to help. Behind the bravado and strutting machismo is a young policeman who's now faced with a complex set of pressures and choices, and the straight and narrow seems less and less tenable every day. Cox's film is a great character study, and uses the barren beauty of the Mexican interior to great advantage, the forbidding landscape almost serving as a character on its own. The remoteness of Pedro's beat, miles and miles of highway with no traffic to be seen for hours, points to his character's isolation as the only honest cop on the force. Sosa is terrific as the young cop, torn by moral choices vs. necessity. The movie's somewhat languid pace only emphasizes Sosa's gradual descent into the corruption that pervades his whole occupation. Free of shoot-'em-up action segments, car chases, or explosions, this is an existential turn on the hoary old crooked-cop genre.
Which side of the political spectrum has a corner on what's just and right in society? What means are justified in knocking down a dictatorship? In 1968, the democratically elected government of Brazil was toppled, and a military dictatorship took its place. The dreaded neo-fascist junta ruled through terror and intimidation, torturing political enemies, controlling the press, and severely curtailing civil freedoms. In Four Days in September, a group of Che Guevara-worshipping Marxist radicals (the MR-8) plot to kidnap an American diplomat (Alan Arkin) to force the government to meet their demands. The college radicals hook up with two senior revolutionaries -- an avuncular veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a cold, ruthlessly intense younger man who becomes their commandant. In telling this story, director Barreto takes what could easily have become an overwrought drama and instead plays it out in an understated, restrained way. The earnest middle-class radicals falter more than once when it looks like they will indeed have to execute their captive; their counterparts in the government's secret police grapple with their consciences when it comes to torture and terror. Four Days in September is both a political thriller and a character-driven historical drama (based as it is on real events). Always a thoughtful, deep actor, Arkin is excellent as Charles Elbrick, the diplomat who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and whose only hope is to try to get inside the minds of his captors. Sweating through his dress shirt, Elbrick manages somehow to keep his dignity despite his predicament. Almost all of the film takes place inside a dingy Rio de Janeiro apartment, due to the captors' need for secrecy. The shadowy cinematography creates an oppressive sense of claustrophobia as clammy as the Rio humidity. Incidentally, in the long run, the revolutionaries' efforts paid off: The military dictatorship was thrown out in 1979, democratic reforms were brought about, and all political prisoners were freed, many after years of torture. Stewart Copeland put together the film's excellent score, along with Sixties-period bossa nova.
1993's Johnny 100 Pesos is a Chilean variant on the old favorite of the crime genre, the caper film. In downtown Santiago, Chile, there's a video store in the upper stories of a high rise. The video store, however, doubles as a front for some illegal business (what kind we're never told) and handles large amounts of cash. Seventeen-year-old Johnny and his friends (all hardened criminals) decide the place would be an easy target for a robbery. Unfortunately, things go badly from the very outset, the crew takes the store's employees hostage, and the bargaining begins. The police, under pressure from the government for their over-zealous tactics, are reluctant to make a move, and the press soon swoops in like vultures to capitalize on the situation. In a complicated array of sexual tensions, the inexperienced, virginal Johnny is attracted to the thirtysomething girlfriend of the store's sleazy owner. The two alternate between make-out sessions and violence as her manipulation of him turns into a weird attraction based on pity for the teenager. Meanwhile, the sleazeballs in the rest of the hold-up crew terrify Johnny with tales of prison life and what his fate would be as a newcomer. Comparisons to Dog Day Afternoon would not be too far out of line, with the media involved not only as journalists but also as participants in the spectacle. Reporters interview school acquaintances of Johnny and interview his naive, unsuspecting mother as she appeals to him to surrender. However, the film's commentary on the media more or less speaks for itself, refraining from driving the point home in too obvious a manner. This is a raw, occasionally brutal story filmed in a way that often has a strange arthouse feel at odds with the gritty yarn itself. Wisely, the movie injects a bit of pitch-black humor from time to time, lest things become too depressing. The title of this nerve-racking, character-driven drama, by the way, comes from the scene in which Johnny's compatriots force him to swallow a coin and wash it down with cooking oil as he sputters and spews the heavy oil back out: "100 pesos will get you a long way in prison."