The old cop movie cliches run into a different kind of car chase picture
[For the next week we'll be looking at some of the movies playing at the Film Comment Selects series, featuring films hand selected by the editors of Film Comment magazine. For tickets and more information on the series, go here or visit FilmLinc.com.]
You can spot cop movie cliches a mile away. When someone says they're retiring from the force, you know there's danger ahead. When the veteran and the fiery rookie are paired together, you already know what their character arcs are going to be. When the older cop seems too cautious, you know it communicates a recklessness or brashness in the past.
And yet knowing all these things, some movies can transcend the cliches by doing creative things around them.
In Motorway, the cliches are a pretext for car chases, and it's here that the movie shows off its originality. It's not action overdrive like the Fast and Furious series. Rather than theatrics and special effects, Motorway is all about actual driving and stunt drivers, and how chases can be presented in different ways than we're used to. Think Bullitt mixed with zen.
Motorway (Che sau | 車手)
Cheung (Shawn Yue) is a hothead newcomer to the police force. He does traffic duty with veteran cop Lo (Anthony Wong). In the opening scene, we see the contrast while they do a traffic stop. Cheung goes in hot pursuit of a fleeing perp while Lo, always cool-headed, advises caution. We see more of Cheung's impulsiveness and brashness outside of the job as he tries to hit on a woman at a bar and works the electronics in his own car. Already there's the expectation of some mentorship and a father/son bond because that's how reliable these cop movie cliches are.
Together, Cheung and Lo need to stop a master getaway driver named Sun (Gu Xiaodong). He's a total pro, well-prepared, and he and his partner Huang (Li Haitao) have got a big-time crime job in mind. You know where this is going, but that's not important -- the car chases are the crux of the film (how you get to where you're going). And like many movies about hot-headed young cops, the personal journey that the rookie goes on is one of maturation. The kid's not a rebel but rather a frustrated conformist who needs to be shown the way.
When Cheung first goes in pursuit of Sun, the car chase is staged with real drivers and little if any CG. It's the sort of crazy driving you'd see in a 1980s Hong Kong action movie, but not quite as reckless. In addition to conveying the speed and impact in these chases, there's also an elegance and tension involved. They're treated a little like martial arts in a strange way -- a white-knuckle tai chi battle on the road, with special attention paid to precision adjustments, sounds, and an instinct for sudden redirection. The dazzle of these action scenes comes not from ramp jumps or spiraling between speeding train cars but from seeing if a car can drift in place to make a 90 degree turn in a narrow alley.
This same approach to the car chases happens throughout the film. Budget restrictions had to be involved to some extent, I'd imagine. But staging these car chases with smaller scale makes more sense from a story perspective. Since the emphasis is on the mastery of the driver rather than the spectacle of set piece, the car chases are character driven. May the more apiritually attuned man win. We see the cool head of Lo try to train the hothead rookie of Cheung. (And of course, Lo's wife says that Cheung reminds her of a young version of her husband. Of course.) Like a duel between two great fighters, it's going to be expertise that'll prevail rather than a case of pure speed.
The small scale approach to the driving makes the car chases more daring since the stunt driving is done with minimal trickery. There's an insane amount of drift and skidding, close calls and scrapes, and there are creative solutions and bits of trickery that crop up throughout these scenes. Whereas a big-budget car chase movie would wreck the narrow, hilly streets of Hong Kong, Motorway uses an unexpected setting to stage a car chase like a game of cat and mouse. The audacity of scale is almost silly, but director Soi Cheang pulls it off with confident style.
Even though the story is predictable, the performances are at least good enough that Motorway doesn't feel like it's totally coasting. Wong turns in the best of the bunch, but it's near impossible for Anthony Wong to act poorly in a film. There's gravitas and weariness to Lo, and he has a genuine concern for Cheung's future on the force. For decades Wong has been one of Hong Kong's best and most prolific actors, playing everything from cannibalistic psychopaths and gangsters to upstanding people like Lo. (Wong's next role is as an older Yip Man in the movie Ip Man: The Final Fight, for which he spent a year learning wing chun.)
Motorway was produced by Johnnie To, the venerable Hong Kong filmmaker best known for his action movies like Fulltime Killer, Election, The Mission, and Exiled. (Oddly, my sentimental favorite To movie is his strange romantic comedy Love on a Diet starring Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng.) Some of To's kinetic energy has rubbed off on Soi Cheang, which is inevitable given that To is Cheang's mentor. I haven't seen Cheang's other films, but watching Motorway makes me a little nervous about his work on The Monkey King with Donnie Yen. Cheang's strengths on display here involve blocking, staging, and using as few special effects as possible. Since The Monkey King is an IMAX 3D movie full of CG, Cheang's abilities and talents may be hurt by so much bulky equipment and reliance on computers.
It was a little hard to figure out a score for Motorway. It's a movie where you know the whole plot before you've even watched the movie, and you know the fates of the characters pretty immediately as well, but at the same time, the plot is secondary. In the car chases there is pure joy and even snippets of character development. Predictable, sure, but there's something to it at least.
[Motorway will screen at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on Saturday, February 23 and Tuesday, February 26.]