A pretty smooth ride as car-centric actioners go, "Motorway" is Hong Kong helmer Soi Cheang's classiest work to date.

With: Shawn Yue, Anthony Wong, Guo Xiaodong, Barbie Hsu, Li Haitao, Lam Ka-tung, Michelle Ye, Josie Ho. (Cantonese, Mandarin dialogue)

A hard-driving cop meets his match in a crafty getaway driver in Hong Kong helmer Soi Cheang’s “Motorway,” a pretty smooth ride as car-centric actioners go. In addition to bearing producer Johnnie To’s signature cool understatement and streamlined action, Cheang’s classiest work to date generates strong emotional heft from the mentor-disciple bond between leads Anthony Wong and Shawn Yue. Cruising pleasantly until a gripping midfilm turning point, the pic only goes full-throttle in the final payoff, with car chases designed to impress the discerning. To’s fans and Asian markets will drive sales traffic.

Chan Cheung (Yue) belongs to the Hong Kong police’s “Invisible Squad,” a plainclothes unit that targets illegal activity on the highway. Overassured of his driving skills, he looks down on risk-averse teammate Lo Fung (Wong), who’s about to retire. Cheung catches two speeding racers but, not heeding Lo’s advice, ends up letting one get away. Although Lo keeps covering for him, Cheung displays his competitive tendencies in two daredevil races that result in a stern reprimand from his captain (Lam Ka-tung).

Demoted to radar-gun operator, Cheung chases after the speeding car of Jiang Xin (Guo Xiaodong), not realizing he’s played into the crook’s hand. What follows is a faultlessly conceived and executed prison-break sequence, in which Jiang engineers the escape of his partner in crime, Huang Zhong (Li Haitao). Impatient to prove himself, Cheung is thoroughly humiliated when Jiang lures him into a cul-de-sac that no driver can maneuver out of. Only then does Fung reveal he’s got a few moves up his sleeve.

The protags’ grudging affection for each other, fondly established at the onset, reaches a high point when Fung demonstrates a few automotive tricks of his own in a scene that’s as satisfying as the drifting rehearsals in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” and “Initial D” (which also features Wong and Yue). The challenge of getting out of a tight spot also acquires metaphorical meaning in light of events that prompt Cheung’s personal growth. As the story takes a darker turn, it gains emotional impact from the lead thesps’ appealingly low-key chemistry.

Distaff involvement is brief but memorable. Barbie Hsu plays a doctor who smolders even as she gives Cheung a frosty put-down, while Michelle Ye combines playfulness with hidden devotion in the dialogue-light role of Fung’s wife.

As designed by Chin Ka-lok (“The Viral Factor”), the car stunts in “Motorway” are handled with consummate control, a quality that may go unappreciated by speed junkies used to the screeching mayhem of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Keeping CGI to a minimum, the action highlights the vehicles’ grace and dexterity as they swerve and dodge each other, rather than the mindless thrill of seeing them crash.

Pic features eight driving sequences shot all over Hong Kong, each evoking a distinct sense of place and raising the bar in terms of logistics, visual panache and peril; a climactic, single-take chase along Wan Chai’s seafront bears out the film’s notion that fluidity is cooler than velocity.

Tech package is well appointed, bearing the stylistic stamp of a Milkyway Image production. Music by To regulars Xavier Jamaux and Alex Gopher boasts their signature synthesizer riffs, while sterling sound effects do much to establish a taut mood.

Fung Yuen Man’s lensing eschews showiness yet exudes sensuality, as when the camera eyes auto parts as if marveling at female curves. The minimalist color palette of jet black, metallic gray and off-white are of a piece with the predominance of nighttime shooting; lighting is a tad too dark in such scenes, especially one set in a parking lot.


Hong Kong

Production: A Media Asia Distribution (in Hong Kong) release of a Media Asia Films, Sil-Metropole Organization presentation of a Milkyway Image production. (International sales: Media Asia Distribution, Hong Kong.) Produced by Johnnie To. Executive producers, John Chong, Song Dai. Co-producers, Shirley Lau, Lorraine Ho, Ren Yue, Lam Ping-kwan. Directed by Soi Cheang. Screenplay, Joey O'Bryan, Szeto Kam Yuen, Francis Fung, based on the original story by O'Bryan.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Fung Yuen Man, Tse Chung-to; editors, David Richardson, Allen Leung; music, Xavier Jamaux, Alex Gopher; production designer, Simon So; art director, Wong Hing Fan; costume designer, Boey Wong; sound (Dolby Digital), Benny Chu; re-recording mixers, Steve Miller, Chu; visual effects supervisor, Law Wai-ho; visual effects, Different Digital Design; action director, Chin Ka-lok; car stunts, Ng Hoi-ting; martial arts director, Wong Wai-fai; line producer, Elaine Chu; associate producer, Ding Yunshan; assistant directors, Wong Hing Fan, To Sze Chung, Jack Lai. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 18, 2012. Running time: 85 MIN.

With: With: Shawn Yue, Anthony Wong, Guo Xiaodong, Barbie Hsu, Li Haitao, Lam Ka-tung, Michelle Ye, Josie Ho. (Cantonese, Mandarin dialogue)

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