Highway Man – Why Do Men Race, Anyway?

Country: Hong Kong
Genre: Action/ Drama/ Romance
Director: Herman Yau
Year: 1995

Rating: ★★★½☆


Highway Man, a film about underground street racing, starts at a disadvantage. Hong Kong cinema during the late 80s and early 90s was peerless when it came to fight coordination and stunts, but there is just no way that Hong Kong stunt drivers can compete with Americans at car chase scenes.

It would appear that a second strike against Highway Man is that the car chase scenes bracket the movie, with the vast majority of the running time taken up by drama. Generally speaking, Hong Kong screenwriters just aren’t very good at drama. Usually, for a drama to be effective, you’ve got to thread it with those awesome martial arts and stunts.

But Highway Man has a secret weapon: screenwriter Benny Lau. This is Lau’s only screenwriting credit, which was a huge loss to Hong Kong cinema. Lau creates characters that we both like and care about. And, unlike most films from this period, Lau is reasonably astute about the psychology of men who get involved in dangerous activities, like the Triads or underground car racing.

Chung (Julian Cheung) works at a car magazine alongside Shirley (Maggie Cheung Hoh-Yee, not the famous Maggie), who he’s going out with. But he can’t forget his ex-wife, Carmen (Rachel Lee), who is cuter than the hamsters at the pet store she works at. Chung feels helpless in emotional situations, so he uses racing to get away from himself. Chung’s mentor, Doctor (the great Anthony Wong), has more pure reasons for being a racer: “A racer driver is a racer driver because he can merge with himself with his car every time. Show his courage and feeling,” according to the subtitles. And Lion King (Michael Lam) has yet another reason. We watch as Lion King endures heat in a sauna and cold in an ice bath way beyond what his fellow gang members can stand, and he revels in crazy risks on the road, popping bennies like candy to juice himself up, but the fact is, he races to feel like a real man, which he secretly doubts.

This is good stuff, and screenwriter Benny Lau gives us many other conflicts and areas of growth for his characters to work through.

I enjoyed all of the characters, but the truth is that I got the biggest kick out of Doctor, whose lines I suspect were improvised by none other than Anthony Wong himself. At this point in his career, Wong could do no wrong. He is delightfully playful as the good Doctor.

Director Herman Yau, pro that he is, keeps things moving, but is unafraid to slow down for an emotional moment. When there is loss in this picture, it really hurts, and there is a poetically rendered sequence that involves grieving that brought tears to my eyes.

For me, the ending, with it’s revenge and vehicle mayhem, although necessary to fulfill genre requirements, felt anti-climactic.

Almost in spite of itself, Highway Man succeeds as a richly observed and keenly felt tribute to boys being boys, and the women who put up with them.

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