It’s been 21 long years since John Woo made a good movie (although “Red Cliff” has its fans, and “good” feels like an inadequate description of 1997’s “Face/Off”), and the legendary Hong Kong director appears to be well aware of that fact. “Manhunt,” Woo’s dumb but deliriously fun new film, is nothing if not a very conscious attempt to turn back the clock and revisit the wild kind of pistol opera that he helped to popularize in the late ’80s with classics like “The Killer” and “A Better Tomorrow.”
That being said, nothing about “Manhunt” comes across as safe or lazy. It doesn’t feel like Woo is just going back to the well because he could use a hit. On the contrary — and from the very beginning — his retreat seems like more of an artistic realignment than it does a surrender. This is the work of someone reconnecting with the things that made them fall in love with cinema in the first place. It’s the kind of madcap action spectacle that Woo might have dreamed up as a young man, before “Mission: Impossible 2” made him forfeit his imagination and his recent wave of Chinese-language epics made him forget his sense of fun.
Leapfrogging from one ludicrous plot twist to another while constantly winking at longtime fans, Woo flirts with self-parody to the point where his film almost generates a kind of sexual tension with itself. Does the director still have his signature obsession with doves? “Manhunt” will make you laugh out loud for doubting it. In a goofy film where most of the dialogue is either amusingly cheesy or straight-up stupid, one line cuts is tinged with some relevant truth: “Whatever job you do, never run from it.”
A throwback in more ways than one, “Manhunt” was born from Woo’s desire to pay tribute to his favorite actor. A remake of a 1976 Ken Takakura vehicle of the same name, the Japan-set film opens with a scene in which an old film literally saves someone’s life. Chinese lawyer Du Qiu (a hangdog Zhang Hanyu, channeling “ER”-era George Clooney) ducks into an Osaka bar to have a drink and lament that “nobody talks about classic films anymore.” But wait! He’s got a DVD of [unspecified classic film] in his car, and he’s just going to pop outside to get it. All hell breaks loose the millisecond he closes the door behind him, the bar’s two waitresses (Ha Ji-won and Angeles Woo) seamlessly pulling guns out of their robes and slaughtering the rabble of gangsters who’ve gathered in the backroom.
It’s so beautiful how Woo transitions from drama to action, in that he doesn’t really bother. There’s zero escalation. One shot is talking, the next shot is killing — it’s as natural as breathing in and then out. Such is the joy of a film that layers several different genres on top of each other, cuts to flashbacks in the middle of shootouts, and never misses an opportunity to add a little more bang for your buck. There’s more gunfire in this movie than Japan has experienced in the last 20 years, combined. It’s all killer no filler, every scene dense with enough stuff to ensure that no one gets bored (though you definitely might get tired).
Set three years after the prologue, the film’s first proper sequence takes place at a rooftop party for Du Qiu’s employer, the evil Tenjin Pharmaceuticals. In the span of a few short minutes, we learn the following: Du Qiu wants to move to America, and CEO Sakai Yoshihiro (Jun Kunimura) — about to hand off the company to his son — is paying a Japanese prostitute to seduce the lawyer into staying. But Du Qiu is more interested in Mayumi (Qi Wei), a gorgeous half-Chinese woman he meets at the bar.
Their paths won’t cross again until long after our hero is framed for murdering the hooker, escapes from police custody with the help of a dirty cop, and begins a frantic game of cat-and-mouse with renowned Osaka detective Yamura Satoshi (Fukuyama Masaharu), who’s naturally introduced in a scene where he rescues small children from a hostage situation. Got all that? Cool, but a semi-secure grip on the plot isn’t going to make a lick of difference once mind-control drugs and super-soldiers are thrown into the mix. And don’t even get me started on Mayumi’s late fiancé, who apparently killed himself in the limo on the way to their wedding.
“Manhunt” boasts seven credited screenwriters, and watching the melodrama of it all leaves you with the impression that none of them ever worked together. No matter. Where this movie goes is far less important than how it gets there: A jet-ski fight, a shanty town chase set to smooth jazz (and ending on a freeze frame), an unexpected bit of lawyer Parkour. Even when augmenting these sequences with a bit too much CG, Woo displays a degree of imagination that humiliates most of the action you’d find in contemporary Hollywood fare. The camera wooshes in every direction, excited and graceful; in a world of sharp cuts, Woo’s carry the sound of a flutter.
That visual wit expresses its own kind of charisma, Du Qiu and Yamura growing into a fun duo even from a distance (and even though they speak different languages). “There’s only one end for a fugitive,” Yamura clenches, “a dead end.” The two hitwomen from the opening bit are also a blast, the familial love between them more believable than almost anything else that Woo throws at us.
It’s a shame that Du Qiu himself is such an empty character, and that the movie’s third act pivot into science-fiction is a painfully overextended excuse to lock the action down to a single location. By that point, however, it really doesn’t matter; there’s nothing left to do but cross your eyes and shake your head and… wait, did that girl accidentally just shoot a random henchman as she crashed into the ground after being backflipped down a staircase? Awesome. It’s hard not to smile when John Woo is having this much fun, or to care about the future when the old-fashioned has this much style.
“Manhunt” is now available to stream on Netflix.