“A street-racing blockbuster about traffic cops” is one of the more endearing action-film premises in recent memory, and in terms of conceptual scale alone it seems a refreshing rejoinder to the genre’s rather exhausting penchant for maximalism. Cheang Pou-soi’s Motorway takes an appropriately soft-shoe approach to the setup: Favoring (comparative) restraint over expected spectacle, the film’s abundance of car chases derive an impressive visual dynamism from the elegance of their conception rather than the caliber of their execution. In other words, Motorway is a stunt film whose stunts are less conventionally compelling than they are thoughtful, a distinguishing quality that’s as much a boon to the film’s overall quality as it is a liability—and unfortunately the latter ends up winning out.
The film’s climactic set piece is typical of this strategy: a headstrong traffic cop’s decidedly low-speed pursuit of a seemingly unstoppable getaway driver through a dimly lit parking garage culminates, not with any remarkable close calls or thrilling displays of stuntwork, but with a very tight corner being taken very slowly. Dozens of fluid, protracted car chases winding through dingy back alleys and precarious country roads culminate, over the final moments, in two cars screeching and squealing their way around a close corner, trying to hit the sweet spot between boxing in and spinning out. On the one hand, reducing the scope of the finale to such close quarters and lingering over such a specific action is a brazen anti-climax, appreciably novel in its simplicity—and though in practice it’s hardly nail-biting, it certainly gets a lot of mileage out of next to no movement. But on the other hand, narrowing the scope of the proceedings to that degree has the effect of narrowing the excitement; it may be well-conceived, but the sequence simply falls flat.
That puts Motorway at a difficult crossroads, so to speak; it’s defined by a commendable spirit of modesty—too rare in action cinema, surely—that ultimately burdens it with a feeling of inertia. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that American blockbusters have been making substantial gains in terms of visual acuity in recent years without sacrificing their essential grandeur, which makes the kind of formal clarity and elegance that define Motorway less remarkable as virtues in and of themselves as they might have seemed even five years ago. Compared to something like Justin Lin’s Fast Five, a bombastic car-chase spectacle as fleet and economical as it is muscular and delightfully absurd, the pared-down races of Motorway almost can’t help but look vanilla. Added to which, of course, is the fact that Cheang, touted in many parts as the protégé of beloved auteur Johnny To (who produced the film), still has yet to find a notable voice of his own, following the style of his mentor closely enough that his work inevitably suffers from the comparison.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—28.