'Expressway': Film Review | Busan 2016

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
Aljur Abrenica in 'Expressway'
A Filipino spin on the noir thriller that could use more Philippines.

'Gemini' director Ato Bautista returns with a grim and gritty road thriller starring pop star Aljur Abrenica and Alvin Anson.

A road trip en route to one last job for an organized crime enforcer also becomes a quest for redemption in Ato Bautista’s neon-drenched crime thriller Expressway. Bautista reteams with his Gemini screenwriter Shugo Praico for another genre-style exploration of conflicting personalities and psychologies, this time with a firmer grip on the material. Where Gemini's horror didn’t always sit well with the noir aspects Bautista and Praico tossed in, the gangland vibe and nihilistic tone work much better here. Executive producer Brillante Mendoza is best known as the reigning titan of Filipino indies, which should garner Expressway some extra attention and a spot in some of the niche festivals, but anyone looking for the next Southeast Asian gem à la The Raid best look elsewhere.

Beginning with a creepy rendition of “Silent Night,” we watch hit man Ben (Alvin Anson, also in Gemini), carefully hidden in the shadows, watching a couple obliviously getting romantic in celebration of their wedding engagement. Before long, Ben gets up, informs the target why he’s there, and proceeds to execute the man. A few minutes later, the partner he didn’t ask for, Morris (actor-singer Aljur Abrenica), walks in and informs Ben he finished off the woman, whom Ben specifically told to scram. From there, the two assassins hit the highway to complete three kills for a mysterious "Colonel." It’s Ben’s last job, so obviously no good will come of it.

Expressway is a by-the-numbers noir thriller, and Bautista and Praico are both clearly steeped in the conventions of the form. There’s lots of garish red lighting and tough-guy philosophizing, as well as two classic noir characters: the weary, jaded veteran and the young, eager, psychotic up-and-comer. As the former, Anson (recalling Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s long-lost Filipino cousin) is all exhausted frustration, simultaneously unable to comprehend Morris’ bloodlust and fully able to recognize his younger self. Abrenica is positively gleeful as the handsome psychopath who revels in his own sadism. As the days pass and Ben tries to convince Morris to give up the life, their tragically connected backstories eventually merge.

There’s nothing going on in Expressway that fans of the genre haven’t see before, but despite a few dead spots and a dearth of real action, Bautista has managed to pull off a diverting yarn with style to spare. Gian Vargas Caluag’s grimy cinematography, not surprisingly, is at its most intimate when it’s focused on the two men as they have their heart-to-heart talks in the car. The requisite themes are all represented — brotherhood, betrayal, closure through revenge, pre-destiny — but the film could have used a more vivid sense of place. When the inevitable conclusion rolls around, it doesn’t pack a wallop so much as a knowing shrug.

Production companies: Sinag Maynila, Solar Entertainment Corporation, Centerstage Productions
Cast: Alvin Anson, Aljur Abrenica, Kiko Matos, Nica Naval, RK Bagatsing, Inez Bernardo, Nathaniel Rocca, Jahren Estordue, Arpee Bautista
Director: Ato Bautista
Screenwriter: Shugo Praico
Producer: Ato Bautista, Shugo Praico, Jason Orfalas, Richard V. Somes,
Alvin Anson, Aljur Abrenica
Executive producer: Wilson Tieng, Brillante Mendoza
Director of photography: Gian Vargas Caluag
Production designer: Roma Regala
Costume designer: Ryndon Leonard Claver
Editor: Benjamin Tolentino
Music: Francis de Veyra

In Tagalog

Not rated, 94 minutes

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