Good action, but that silly plot …
John Woo was once considered the master of action cinema, dominating the action landscape throughout the 1980s and 1990s with hyperbolic, bloody, bullet-riddled spectaculars. In his native China, he helmed classics like The Killer, Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow. In America, he raked in enormous box office numbers with overblown-slash-awesome popcorn explosions like Face/Off, Hard Target, and Mission: Impossible 2. After the dismal Paycheck, Woo returned to China, and turned his attention to historical epics like Red Cliff and The Crossing, both of which run over four hours apiece.
Right at the beginning of Woo’s new film Manhunt, now available on Netflix, the protagonist – a Chinese lawyer named Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) vacationing in Japan – has a conversation with a waitress about how much better old movies used to be, and about how all the new films are too long. Woo, it seems, has a need to wistfully recall – and celebrate – his own filmography, looking back to his glory, possessed by a halcyon pang to recreate the slow-motion bullets and boxes of doves that had become his signature. The brash bloody action that immediately follows Manhunt’s opening– and continues entertainingly apace throughout the span of the film – feels comfortably retro. It’s all blood packs and stuntmen instead of CGI. We haven’t seen mid-budget Chinese action schlock quite this slick for at least 20 years.
The plot of Manhunt is ludicrous. Du Qiu is framed for the murder of a mysterious femme fatale, and, in true Fugitive fashion, must go on the run to clear his name. On his trail is the hard-nosed cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his eager-beaver assistant (Nanami Sakuraba), who catch up with him frequently. Additionally, Du Qiu has run afoul of two amazing English-speaking assassins named Rain and Dawn (Ha Ji-won and Angeles Woo, the director’s daughter) who are granted some of the film’s more amazing stunts. The action will culminate in a sci-fi super-lab that has been using madness drugs to turn homeless people into mindless zombie soldiers; yes, Manhunt contains cartoonishly large syringes filled with mysterious neon blue fluid.
Manhunt simultaneously celebrates and satirizes its own cheesy retro super-cool. It’s a remake of a 1976 Japanese actioner of the same title whose main character – played by legit Japanese action legend Ken Takakura – directly inspired the look and personality of Chow Yun-fat in The Killer. Woo is using the material that inspired him to return, quite happily it seems, into the milieu that made him. Some may celebrate. On a purely objective level, the action is amazing to behold, and the new gunfight scenes possess no less pizzazz than their 1990s counterparts; don’t miss the scene where Yamura and Du Qiu are handcuffed together, and must execute a two-handed shooting spree in unison. The sure-footed lighting and affable wide angles evoke a simpler time in action filmmaking when there fewer edits and more squibs.
Conspicuously absent, however, is Woo’s operatic gravitas. The action is so overblown, and the plotting so aggressively silly (I made no mention of the mysterious blood-spattered bride played by Qi Wei or of the evil pharmaceutical tycoon played by Jun Kunimura) that one might be forgiven for assuming that Manhunt a parody of a John Woo film instead of the real thing; when Woo’s aforementioned crate of doves appears, one of the birds interrupts a fight between two characters by flying between them, blocking a gunshot. That feels like a gag out of a Zucker Brothers movie.
But, thanks to the quick pace and assured handling, along with a few notable badasses, Manhunt is imminently watchable. It’s not a true return to form, but it is an effective look backward. We now find John Woo at a strange crossroads in his career. Does he regress further, or does he turn back to the heftier dramas of his more recent years? Woo just turned 72, and he seems willing to bend either way. If he does regress, we can only hope he will aim to recapture more than just the fun stuff.