In the late 80s and early 90s, if there was one name synonymous with genre-defining action cinema, then it was John Woo. Exploding out of Hong Kong with a laundry list of classics – The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in The Head, Hard Boiled – and a dynamite partnership with regular leading man, Chow Yun-Fat, he took action movies to another level.
Woo is an action cinema auteur, and what you can safely rely on from a Woo movie is super stylish slow-motion, dual handed gunfights, agitated birds flapping about, motorcyclists with Uzis and probably a Mexican stand-off or two. Woo was irresistible to action fans everywhere, keen to check out movies billed as ‘more exciting than a dozen Die Hards‘. Quentin Tarantino even went so far as to reference Woo directly, in Jackie Brown, with Samuel L Jackson and Robert De Niro discussing the impact of The Killer on the weapons trade.
In the 90s Woo took his action prowess to the US. The common perception seems to be that his Hollywood output is of a lesser quality, when the reality could not be further from the truth. His Hollywood movies, despite studio interference, still displayed his trademark style and balletic violence. Broken Arrow, for example, is far more entertaining than it’s ever given credit for. Face/Off is often overshadowed by Nicolas Cage’s unhinged performance, despite the fact John Travolta is equally, if not more, over-the-top, and the script itself achieves a savant level of bonkers-ness. Hard Target is probably the most criminally underrated film of Woo’s entire output, representing a career high for Jean Claude Van Damme, possessing Woo’s complete trademark style, and featuring a superb Lance Henriksen performance as the bad guy. In fact, this reviewer thinks Hard Target sits comfortably as one of the best action movies of the decade (and would love to see the more violent director’s cut / workprint surface one day).
So, now that we’re all up to speed with how amazing John Woo is – what of Manhunt? Well, let’s just say that after flying completely under our radar and suddenly surfacing on Netflix, excitement levels were HIGH, and the result is watchable, but not the return to form we hoped for.
Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang) is a lawyer for a successful pharmaceutical company. The morning after notifying his boss he is transferring from Osaka to the USA, he wakes up in bed next to the corpse of a young woman. Realising he is being framed, Du Qiu escapes the police and goes on the run. Pursued by dedicated, oddball, hero-cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and a duo of deadly assassins, Rain (Ji-won Ha) and Dawn (Angeles Woo), Du Qiu teams up with a bereaved young woman, Mayumi, (Qi We) to try and clear his name.
Manhunt is a remake of the 1976 Japanese movie Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare a.k.a. Manhunt, which is itself based on a novel of the same name, and the most obvious comparison to western audiences would be The Fugitive. On the face of it, this may sound like a straightforward chase movie; except for the fact the team of seven credited writers threw the kitchen sink at it. Subplots involving revenge and a Captain America-esque super solider serum grow like vines around the central premise and threaten to strangle the life out of everything.
By the time the silly final showdown rolls around, you might be forgiven for thinking an unused piece of the Face/Off script had crept in by accident. And instead of concentrating on the overloaded plot, the writers might have been better off paying attention to character building. Manhunt’s crucial relationship between Du Qiu and Yamura never quite gels, courtesy of some strange dialogue and plot leaps.
While all the things we love about John Woo are present and correct in Manhunt, it feels a bit like a ‘random-John-Woo-generator’ was applied, to give us action that is calculated to appeal but otherwise falls a bit flat. For a filmmaker famous for his style, it’s also a shame Manhunt has that sterile, digital feel to it, that makes it look like day-time TV, even when presented on a television without a ‘motion smoothing’ function.
That’s not to say Manhunt is all bad. Woo fans, fiending for his classic visual cues, are given a decent helping. Black clad motorcyclists with machine guns, endless slo-mo, and of course, doves… lots of doves. The action itself is pretty good. An opening assassination kicks things off stylishly, a slow motion gunfight / jet-ski chase is fun, and a home invasion sequence involving the aforementioned motorbikes is pretty exciting. But it’s not enough to elevate the film from its overloaded plot and clunky characterisation.
For some fans, delivering the Woo basics will be enough. But for others, Manhunt is a shame. By referencing himself so much, Woo simply reminds that this is not the Woo of old. It looks right, but it doesn’t feel right. By comparing himself to his own glorious back catalogue, you’re left asking yourself why you didn’t just revisit those classics instead.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★☆☆☆
‘Manhunt’ is currently streaming on Netflix.