Motorway Review: A Hong Kong Action Thriller From Famous Director Johnnie To
Motorway comes with the expected baggage of a Milkyway Image production – that is. It’s produced by Johnnie To and his fan-fave company so it simply must kick ass. And if it doesn’t, there will be momentary regret before everyone goes right back to hyping the next Milkyway Image flick that hopefully contains criminals, cops and guns. Such is the cycle of modern cinephile adulation – audience expectations become so myopic that creativity is less revered than delivering the same experience over and over again.
In that, Motorway (Quai Xe) is guilty of lateral movement, delivering more of the same Milkyway Image iconography. And doing little to advance the brand beyond pined-for genre coolness. Those looking for Milkyway Image to deliver on a decade of international film fest PR may find Motorway a bit underwhelming.
That said, Motorway is an undeniably strong Milkyway Image product that should satisfy if you like cool cops, charismatic bad guys and smart, solid filmmaking. Shawn Yue stars as Cheung, a member of Hong Kong’s “Invisible Squad”. A group of cops who masquerade as regular drivers until it’s time to slap on a siren and pull someone over. Cheung is more than just a cop. He’s also an ace driver that needs speed in the same way that his quarry does.
Supporting Cheung is his partner Lo (Anthony Wong). A veteran cop who’s just days away from retirement. Lo is forever trying to cool down his impulsive partner. But he and Cheung get busted down to radar gun duty courtesy of their commanding officer (Gordon Lam). But even on his down time, Cheung will exact righteous justice. Seeking out illegal racers and embarrassing them with his souped-up personal racer. Truly, Cheung is a man you want protecting you from speeding vehicles.
Cheung meets his match in Jiang (Guo Xiaodong). A legendary getaway driver who returns to the game at the behest of criminal Wong (Li Hai-Tao). Jiang’s driving prowess introduce in trademark understated Milkyway style; Jiang calmly maps out his getaway route, looks for shortcuts. And sets up opportunities to use his expert skills to outwit even the most skilled driver. Witnessing the actual getaway is an enthralling and exciting experience. As the film makes use of plentiful driving detail and smart, spare storytelling to establish Jiang’s road superiority.
The getaway is also Cheung’s first fall from grace – but don’t worry, he’ll be back on his feet soon. You know this story: a talented Young Turk rankles authority before defeat forces a comeuppance. Confidence lost, our hero wallows in self-pity until renewed dedication (plus some sage-like wisdom from a father figure) brings him back as a mature, more kick-ass version of himself. If this were a nineties Hollywood film, it would star Tom Cruise.
Sorry, no Tom Cruise here, but we do get Shawn Yue (Du Van Lac). Who handles underplayed intensity quite well. Yue is somewhat of a lightweight actor, but he’s got the right presence to headline Milkyway Image genre fare. Guo Xiaodong makes a suitably charismatic foil. And he and Li Hai-Tao give their bad guy roles weight and even some class. However, all actors are owned by Anthony Wong, who essays his retiring cop with dynamic, felt and surprising convince.
Lo is an archetype – the aged master drawn back into the game for one last push at redemption. But Wong conveys years of etched-in life with a scant amount of screentime. These are your standard Milkyway Image males and Motorway assembles a fine cast to bring them to life. Unfortunately, the female roles are largely ornamental. With actresses like Barbie Hsu and Michelle Ye showing up to smoke, worry, cry and cook soup. Josie Ho’s senior inspector does order everyone around, but she doesn’t get a character arc like Gordon Lam does. This inequality is something Milkyway Image still needs to work on.
Soi Cheang is a talented director with his own voice. But Motorway seems to channel the Milkyway Image house style more than any of Soi’s personal concerns. That’s more of an observation than a complaint; Soi Cheang’s best work quietly takes risks. And Motorway lacks that ambition or innovation, coming across as yet another fan-ready Milkyway Image product. The two things that set Motorway apart from the company’s storied crime catalog are its lack of irony – notable considering how Johnnie To and his crew so love their irony. And the film’s use of cars.
Action director Chin Kar-Lok’s car chases feel authentic and exacting. Eschewing Michael Bay-style vehicular orgasms for tight tension and convincing detail. This is a driving movie that delivers on its driving hook. Though the action film (phim hanh dong dua xe) stumbles a bit when it tries to get metaphorical. Simply put, the flimmakers could have done a lot better than to lean on the repeated line. “If you lose your drive, you’re worse off than a broken car.”
But that drops us back right where we began: the discussion of whether we want new experiences and ideas or old tricks and tropes. Motorway is a nearly flawless genre film, but that’s based on your routine expectations of genre. The story and characters are unremarkable and incredibly familiar, and the trademark Milkyway Image style is old, too. Soi Cheang and his team’s execution is aces. Lending unmistakable cool and smart style to the proceedings.
But this is still the same tone and style that we’ve seen before. After fifteen years atop the genre film game. It would be great to see Milkyway Image evolve. Seeking a new level of craft rather than just maximizing their current one. But again, that’s more observation than actual complaint. Because with a product as polished and well executed as Motorway. It’s impossible to say that it’s not worthwhile. The Milkyway Image machine isn’t broken. And apparently the main players have yet to lose their drive. Guess we’ll sit in the back seat a while longer.