‘Manhunt’ Review: John Woo Returns to Gun-Fu with a Vengeance in Netflix Film
This is a re-post of our Manhunt review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is now available to stream on Netflix.
After almost two decades of making disappointing Hollywood blockbusters and propagandistic historical epics in China, the John Woo who became a brand name is finally back. Manhunt sees Woo return to the style of lovingly ludicrous gun-fu pulp that made his name in the 80s and 90s. Of course, there will be many who poo-poo and dismiss the flick because it is absolute nonsense. Those folks who remember Woo as a grand artiste based on an academic essay they read about The Killer once rather than the B-movie master that he always was. Woo is an artist, no doubt about it. His canvas is just action trash and there’s nothing wrong with that, just like there’s nothing wrong with giggling away at the absurdity and artistry of Manhunt.
The Japan-shot production and remake of a popular 70s thriller has a deceptively simple premise. Zahang Hanyu plays an international lawyer who was framed for murder. Masaharu Fukuyama plays an eccentric wild card detective assigned to track him down. Over the course of chasing and shooting at each other, they bond. You know, classic John Woo stuff. Unfortunately, the screenplay credited to a laundry list of screenwriters also forces in subplots involving a blood-splattered bride seeking revenge, a pair of movie-junkie lady assassins, and a confusing conspiracy involving a pharmaceutical company developing a super soldier serum by testing it on the poor. Admittedly all those unnecessary plotlines lead to plenty of extra bang-bang and boom-boom (which is nice), but they also slowly drag the script down into a convoluted mess (which isn’t so nice). Thankfully, Woo directs the shit out of the messy screenplay to ensure that barely a minute goes by without something absolutely insane and hyper-stylized happening. That’s a good thing.
The budget is clearly low with the cheap digital sheen that defines so many cheapo contemporary B-level action productions. It also prevents Woo from truly hitting the operatic grandeur of his greatest work. Yet, the industry in which Hard Boiled was made no longer exists. So Woo’s gotta work with what he’s got and delivers some dynamite set pieces that stretch the limits of his resources. There’s a sequence in which a team of assassins on motorcycles attack a country home while our heroes are handcuffed to each other and trading off guns and samurai swords that is every bit as delightfully insane as it sounds. Otherwise, Woo keeps the limited action pumping with style and needless symbolism. Friendships are formed while leaping over each other on jet skis. The inevitable dove sequences plays like a tongue-in-cheek joke on Woo’s most famous tropes. Manhunt is pulp on overdrive, every moment so lovingly ludicrous that it barely matters if they logically link up. Pure dumbbell entertainment carries this wild ride along.
The story is admittedly sloppy, awkwardly transforming from a Fugitive riff into a heroic bloodshed riff and then finally a Universal Soldier knock without much rhyme or reason. Throughout it all, the movie lurches from self-aware self-parody to straight up campy nonsense. Dialogue shifts from Japanese to Mandarin to English without much reason beyond which language the one-liners sound best in (highlight: “There’s only one end for a fugitive…a dead end”). Acting varies from stilted to ludicrous, definitely missing the presence of a Chow Yun Fat to, if not ground it all, at least sell it with a straight face. Woo is either poking fun at himself or sincerely serving up so many clichés at once that the result is accidental comedy.
It’s hard to say, but the flick is at least lushly ludicrous enough in all the old Woo ways to suggest he’s at least having fun. Freeze frames, unexpected montages, and jarring slow-mo transitions pile up at a fever pitch. Manhunt has clearly been edited endlessly, leading to 111 minutes that never slow down, yet also have no pace or rhythm beyond ensuring that every shot and edit are cool, fast, and ADD impactful. Regardless, it’s all a hell of a lot of fun, which is all that really matters with this sort of thing. The sloppy scenes go by quickly and the action is just over-the-top enough to inspire giggles and applause from the right crowd. Chances are Manhunt will end up going straight to the DVD and streaming services outside of the Asian market and that’s fine. Sure, it would be nice for more people to see the WTF highlights of the flick on a big screen, but John Woo’s cult was born on worn out VHS tapes passed between action fans. If this proves to be a final swan song in the double gun/flying doves portion of Woo’s career, it’s an amusing throwback for his long time fans. Manhunt won’t ever be considered the director’s finest hour, but it’s still a far better action movie note to go out on than Paycheck.