In 1986 John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow opened in Hong Kong theatres, and became a phenomenon. Its operatic story, impossibly cool gangsters, and slow-motion, duel-wielding gun fights went on to influence both Hong Kong and Hollywood action cinema for years to come. The film essentially invented a genre – heroic bloodshed – which Woo cemented in 1989 and 1992 by directing two of the best action films ever made: The Killer and Hard Boiled. The latter features an almost hour long action scene as the finale, the insanity of which has rarely been equaled.
In 1993 Woo made the jump to Hollywood. Though his wizardry with action sequences never let up, his English language films are largely disappointing. Of his six Hollywood features, only Face/Off comes close to living up to his legendary reputation. In 2008 Woo returned to Asia and directed two four-hour long epics – Red Cliff and The Crossing. I have yet to see The Crossing, but Red Cliff is a mostly successful historical war picture – swords replace guns, and armour takes the place of billowing trench coats, but Woo’s signature directorial style shines through, and reminds us that he still has what it takes to make an action film work.
Needless to say, when it was announced that Woo would be returning to the world of heroic bloodshed that he essentially created back in 1986, I immediately put Manhunt on my must-watch list. So, now that I’ve seen it, does Woo’s latest live up to my expectations? Kind of!
The film takes place in Japan, and follows Du Qiu, a lawyer who is framed for murder, and Satoshi Yamura, the detective tasked with tracking him down. This type of story has long been a fascination of Woo’s; A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Hard Boiled, and Face/Off all revolve around intimate relationships that develop between cops and criminals, with Face/Off taking that relationship to the absolute extreme. Swept up in the proceedings are Rain and Dawn, sister assassins who are hired to eliminate Du Qiu before he can prove himself innocent. The villains are a father-son duo that work as higher ups at a huge pharmaceutical company, an industry that seems to pump out more than its share of nefarious characters. Then we have Rika, Yamura’s partner, and Mayumi, a mysterious woman who can hopefully provide Du Qiu with an alibi. It’s all pulpy as hell, and, while it may be less interesting than any of Woo’s previously mentioned films, it’s certainly never boring. I found myself quite invested in Du Qiu, Yamura, Rika, and Mayumi’s stories, and the way they all weave together, for the most part, works. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for Rain and Dawn, who despite a great introduction, just don’t work. Their storyline is ludicrous, and the acting from both performers is so over-the-top it’s impossible to connect to. The villainous pharmaceutical executives oscillate between twirling their mustaches and delivering surprisingly nuanced performances; the great Jun Kunimura, as the father, is particularly suited to his role.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a heroic bloodshed movie without a lot of heroic bloodshed. Pistols are fired endlessly, without the need of pesky reloading, slow motion debris fills the frame, and blood splatters on a plethora of white surfaces, from walls to tablecloths to a wedding dress. It’s all shot with Woo’s uncanny knack for geography – I always knew where everyone was, where they needed to go, and how many bad guys were going to try to stop them. There are also plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to Woo’s own oeuvre, from a dove appearing at the perfect time to create a distraction, to a samurai sword fight lifted almost verbatim from A Better Tomorrow II. These little nods are used sparingly, and make me think that Woo is pretty darn happy to be back in his old stomping ground.
The camera work ranges from bold, as in several scenes where the past and present intertwine in character’s minds, to soap opera, as in a bizarre sequence where Rain and Dawn reveal their drug addiction struggles. There are a lot of freeze frames – some that work, and some that are awkward and strangely edited. The slow-mo, too, can be jarring, showing up at random points before vanishing just as abruptly. The lighting ranges from rich to flat and boring.
I was certainly hoping for a little more from Manhunt, but I’m pleased to report that end result is a great deal of fun. The story has some surprising twists and turns, the characters are mostly likeable, and the action is classic Woo – just when you think it can’t top itself, it does. For those new to John Woo, The Killer and Hard Boiled are much better jumping off points. Fans, however, should find a lot to like in Manhunt – I sure did.