John Woo’s back baby! The director of Face/Off, The Killer and Hard Boiled returns to Asian action cinema after a lengthy foray into Chinese historical epics. Everything people love about the Woo of the 1980s and 1990s is present in Manhunt: acrobatic gunplay, ludicrous melodrama and doves. While the Netflix release never reaches the peak of what Woo did with Chow Yun-fat or Nicolas Cage as John Travolta, it comes damn close.
Chinese lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is framed for murder by the Japanese Big Pharma company he works for. Chasing him is Japanese detective Satoshi Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his plucky assistant Rika (Nanami Sakuraba). Throughout their cat-and-mouse game and eventual team up to take down Du Qiu’s former employer, the lawyer and detectives battle various female assassins all somehow connected to this contorted and bullet-ridden plot we have been blessed with.
Journalist Tom Breihan – in his column A History of Violence chronicling the history of action cinema – wrote that for action movies to work, it must look like it hurts when someone is punched or shot. John Woo is a master at this. Examples include Qiu and Yamura’s first face-off fighting with bamboo poles amid a flurry of doves to a batshit farmhouse shootout where the two men – now handcuffed together – slide on their backs firing their guns simultaneously. The plots of his films may run into a treacly mire of melodrama and weepy romance but when someone gets shot or punched in a John Woo film it’s damn convincing.
Speaking of weepy romance and melodrama there’s a lot of that in Manhunt. Yet, that’s OK. If there’s one thing Eastern action cinema pushes as much as the action it’s love triangles and the tragedy of assassins falling in love. In Manhunt, this is often conveyed in imagery such as a summery wedding scene that ends in a suicide, blood pooling on a white dress.
Manhunt is shot in an especially weird way. Editor Lee Ka Wah freeze frames in the middle or end of scenes to make sure we feel the weight of the romantic connotations that a conversation about old movies carries. Other times, Wah and Woo freeze frame at moments – such as Qiu’s escape to a homeless commune – to the extent that it feels like a comedy sketch. Meanwhile, no attempt is made to make very fake looking sets any more real. Some quieter moments feel like they’ve come from a Japanese soap.
One senses Woo was saving cinematographer Takuro Ishizaki’s energy for the jet ski chase because it definitely wasn’t used elsewhere. Still that’s a small price to pay for action scenes that are as stylish and slick as they are in Manhunt. At one-point Yamura kicks a samurai sword into the crook of his neck, unsheathes it using his cuffed hand and cheek before gutting two thugs with it.
Manhunt has a lot of women in it. Possibly more than any other John Woo film ever. This is good especially considering that he’s remaking The Killer with Lupita Nyongo’o. Of course, having this many female characters shooting at everyone is cool. Yet, it limits what can be done with many of them story-wise. Mayumi (Qi Wei) – a rich Japanese woman wrapped up with Du Qiu – gets the most fleshing out. However, it’s the assassin duo Rain (Ha Ji-Won) and Dawn (Angeles Woo, John’s daughter) that suffer the most due to a lack of attention. More attention is lavished on the fairly useless assistant Rika than the two most badass women in the movie. That said there’s a moment where Dawn drives a motorcycle out of a second storey window while firing a gun so swings and roundabouts.
None of the minor criticisms I’ve leveled at Manhunt really matter. I criticised the brutal South Korean revenge thriller The Villainess for similar reasons. Yet, repeat viewings have swayed me to think of it as one of the best action films of 2017. When an action film feels and looks this good, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be celebrated for all its slow-mo, over-acted, gung-ho glory. The Grandmaster of Eastern action has returned. Long may his reign continue.