Film Comment Selects 2013: ‘Motorway’ is nothing new, but stays efficient and tense throughout

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Written by Joey O’Bryan
Directed by Cheang Pou-soi
Hong Kong, 2012

Hong Kong director Johnnie To isn’t just prolific; he’s a brand unto himself. To’s IMDB entry lists 55 movies that he’s directed, but he’s also a powerful producer of 67 other films and television projects. The work he produces has a great deal in common with the films he directs, to the point that one might say there is a To “house style.” That style is on full display in Cheang Pou-soi’s Motorway, making its U.S. debut as part of the Film Comment Selects festival.

Shawn Yue plays a transit cop in Hong Kong. That may not sound too exciting, except that Hong Kong transit has an “Invisible Squad” who pose as normal drivers in souped-up civilian vehicles. It’s their job to chase down those offenders who pose the biggest danger on the roads. Veteran character actor Anthony Wong plays his aging partner, and they work together to stop a team of jewel thieves that includes the best driver anyone’s ever seen.

That’s not especially complicated, and the story beats tread territory that everyone has walked before (to note that Wong’s character is close to retirement is practically a spoiler unto itself). But To is a strong believer in the philosophy first put forth by John Ford: audiences like to see professionals doing their jobs to the best of their ability. That’s exactly where Motorway is strongest: no one is incompetent and no one is unprofessional. Yue’s character is not a maverick type, and he’s never threatened with turning in his gun and badge. The villains are not overly greedy or psychopathic; in fact, they’re real characters with genuine motivations. Everyone is just doing his or her job and doing it well.

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Also in keeping with the To house style, Motorway is much more concerned about nuance than spectacle. There are no splashy stunt sequences like in the Fast and the Furious movies, no kung-fu fights, and only a minimal amount of gunplay. The film’s action centers upon the driving alone, and the most difficult driving stunt that the characters have to pull off is a none-too-cinematic slow-speed turn. There are some thrilling high-speed moments, of course, but this movie understands that being great at something doesn’t just mean mastering the tricks that look good on camera.

None of this is to say that Motorway doesn’t have flaws. For one, the female characters are laughably under-developed, almost perfunctory. Like many other aspects of this picture, they’re there because a filmed display of nothing but driving wouldn’t be a movie, it would be a Formula One race. So, perhaps hoping for more from this film than an impressive driving display is unrealistic; all that it’s aiming to do is be the best driving-stunt movie it can be. There’s no sin in that, and it makes for a fun 90 minutes.

-Mark Young

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