Review: Motorway (2012)

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Car movies are hot right now. We’ve had more Fast and the Furious films than really ought to exist (believe it or not, the sixth is in production) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive won over last year’s Cannes audiences and critics; there’s an undeniable appeal to these stories, whether they’re about gangs of thrill-seeking speedsters or the archetypal getaway driver on a job gone wrong.

The latter in particular is a great fit for the Milkyway Image house style, actually. So much so that I’m surprised that Johnnie To and company haven’t delivered us a neon-soaked movie about The Driver before now. With Motorway, Soi Cheang (directing) and To (producing) remedy that omission with a car film that hits some of these familiar notes, but manages to be a uniquely Hong Kong production as well.

Shawn Yue plays Cheung, a young member of a squad of policemen in fast cars that target really serious speeding mano-a-mano — generally cornering and pulling over rich men street racing in expensive European sportscars. He’s a talented driver, but he’s young and impetuous, all raw speed and little finesse. His partner is Lo, played wonderfully by Anthony Wong. Lo’s weeks away from finishing up in the force and looking forward to it, burbling away happily about retirement meetings and generally content to sit on traffic duty and let the difficult cases get away from him.

Things turn serious when we meet Jiang (Guo Xiaodong), a getaway driver called in to help his old friend Wong (Li Hai-Tao). Turns out his old friend is a criminal who’s just been locked away in jail; unruffled, Jiang meticulously prepares an appropriate car, plans a detailed route through the city’s backstreets and breaks Wong out of the big house, eluding the police with feats of impressive driving skill. Cheung’s the last to lose him — after an amazing technical stunt — and so begins the chase.

Structurally, Motorway feels like a kung fu film to me, replacing the eighteen classical weapons with Nissans, Audis and BMWs. Cheung’s the talented but inexperienced young lad, brash and driven (hah!), bested by a technically skilled villain early in the piece. To take down the miscreant, he needs Lo — the sage older master — to train him up and teach him control. The driving scenes in the film are more like battles than races: Jiang weaves his way through Hong Kong’s tight alleyways and car parks, dispatching lesser pursuers with precise side-swipes and collisions. The cars themselves get almost as much screen time and attention as the lead characters, from the Audi and Z4 of the opening sequence to the baleful headlights of Jiang’s Nissan S13, glaring out of the fog of tire-smoke he’s produced.

Shawn Yue delivers a decent performance, though the hotheaded young cop is a character we’ve seen many times before. The real star of the show is Anthony Wong as Lo, who seems to be having a great deal of fun playing the affable older cop. Guo Xiaodong has a certain menacing efficiency as the preternaturally skilled outlaw driver, and Barbie Hsu, Michelle Ye and Josie Ho have small roles as a hard-working surgeon (and thinly-sketched love interest), Mrs. Lo and the police officer in charge, respectively.

Milkyway fans and Anthony Wong devotees (there’s probably some overlap!) will thoroughly enjoy Motorway, and I suspect that car film buffs might enjoy the focus on technical skill over raw power, even if it’s a touch cartoonish at times.

8 impossible right turns out of 10.
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