Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Movie Review: Manhunt

Manhunt *** / *****
Directed by: John Woo.
Written by: John Woo based on the book by Jukô Nishimura.
Starring: Hanyu Zhang (Du Qiu), Masaharu Fukuyama (Yamura), Ji-won Ha (Rain), Jun Kunimura (Yoshihiro Sakai), Wei Qi (Mayumi), Nanami Sakuraba (Rika Hyakuta), Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (Hiroshi Sakai), Tao Okamoto (Kiko Tanaka), Tao Okamoto (Kiko Tanaka), Yasuaki Kurata (Hideo Sakaguchi), Naoto Takenaka (Mamoru Ito).
John Woo’s Manhunt is a throwback in many ways to the films that made him a cinematic icon in the late 1980s and early 1990s – films that helped make Hong Kong action films legendary. Films like A Better Tomorrow (1986) and its sequel (1988), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990) and Hardboiled (1992) – which will always be my favorite. These films really did elevate movie violence to an art form – with gun battles choreographed more like dance numbers than anything else. They also didn’t shy away from melodrama and sentimentality, and often hinged on strange plot twists and reveals. Woo’s world was violent and dark – no one could be trusted – but the people in them were often capable of both good and evil. After this run of films, Woo came to America, and his output was a mixed bag – his best Hollywood film, Face/Off (1997) is a masterpiece of its kind, but his decade in America was more forgettable than not (even if I still like Mission Impossible II, possibly because of all those doves). Since returning to China, Woo has seemingly wanted to expand his horizons a little (good for him, even if the results haven’t always been memorable). I’m not sure why the now 72 year old filmmaker felt the need to return to the genre that made him famous, but I’m glad he did – if for no other reason than to show everyone else how action is done.
The plot of Manhunt is relatively simple – a Chinese lawyer in Japan, Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang) wakes up one morning after a party thrown by the company he about to leave, next to a dead woman, with police banging down his door. He knows he’s innocent, but no one else believes him. When he ends up escaping (not just police custody, but certain death), his case is then assigned to Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) – perhaps the only honest cop around. He doesn’t much care if Du Qiu is innocent or not, his job is to bring him in. And yet, the deeper he looks, the fishier it all looks – and a conspiracy starts to become clearer to him.
Manhunt is at its best when it stops the plot, and just exists as pure action movie magic. Although Woo hasn’t flexed these muscles recently, he certainly remembers how it’s done – from the first scene, a shootout between Yakuza and who they thought were waitresses, to multiple chase sequences – like an excellent one involving jet skis – Woo is showing everyone he still remembers what to do. Nothing here matches the brilliance of the shootout in A Better Tomorrow where Chow Yun Fat hid the guns in the planters or the opening of Hardboiled (is that the best shootout in movie history? Let’s just say yes) – but it’s refreshing to see Woo’s style back on screen, especially in an era where every action sequence is cut like a Michael Bay film. Woo has never done that, and isn’t going to start now. And we’re better for it.
The plot and characters of the film I’m not sure ever truly work. Perhaps, it would have been better had Woo addressed some of the shortcomings of his previous work, for a more advanced place – his treatment of women for instance. While there is a pair of badass female assassins in Manhunt (named Dawn and Rain), they don’t really do all that much – and the less said about Yamamura’s assistant Rika the better. Women are still basically window dressing in Woo’s films – if they are there at all (he much prefers male bonding in his work). His next film, a remake of The Killer starring Lupita Nyong’o will hopefully fare better in that regard.
Ultimately, I don’t think Manhunt adds all that much to Woo’s filmography that we haven’t seen before. It’s certainly not as good as his best work at its peak, and still has many of the same flaws his work has always had. Still, its fun to watch him work, and the action sequences are among the best you’ll see this year. He’s not re-inventing the wheel here – but he doesn’t really have to.

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