Manhunt [追捕] (2017)

Starring Zhang Han-Yu, Masaharu Fukuyama, Ha Ji-Won, Stephy Qi Wei, Jun Kunimura, Nanami Sakuraba, Angeles Woo, Yasuaki Kurata, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Tao Okamoto, Naoto Takenaka

Directed by John Woo

Expectations: A new John Woo action movie… I love these! But I have very little expectation to love this one, honestly.

John Woo has made over 30 films in various genres, but he is best known for his heroic bloodshed films set in the dangerous world of cops and criminals. His last film to fit the category is 1997’s Face/Off, so calling Manhunt a highly anticipated film would still undersell the considerable excitement of action fans worldwide. There is virtually no film that can stand up to 20 years of pent-up desires, though, and Manhunt is no different. It is not the next Hard Boiled, and it will never achieve such widespread classic status as The Killer or A Better Tomorrow. Regardless of this, Manhunt is a very enjoyable film in its own right, and a nice return for John Woo to the style that made him an international sensation. The focus on the overall style is particularly key, as the film itself hardly resembles Woo’s masterworks in any literal sense.

Du Qiu (Zhang Han-Yu) is a Chinese lawyer working in Japan for Tenjin Pharmaceuticals, a powerful corporation developing cutting-edge drugs. After a company party, Du Qiu is found in his apartment with the corpse of a woman beside him. Charged with murder, Du Qiu escapes the arresting cops and runs for his life. Japanese policeman Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) suspects a set-up, and with his recruit sidekick Rika (Nanami Sakuraba) he begins investigating beyond what the initial facts indicate. These threads converge and overlap throughout the film in clever ways, developing the bond between Du Qiu and Yamura, just as you would expect in a heroic bloodshed film from John Woo. The relationship feels undercooked compared to the perfectly executed ones in The Killer or Hard Boiled, though.

The way John Woo handles this central relationship makes Manhunt feel like an exercise in re-purposing the heroic bloodshed style, instead of simply existing as a heroic bloodshed film. If we see The Killer as a perfect balance of melodrama and action, then Hard Boiled is crafted to hit similar themes and melodramatic beats amidst a much more action-focused film. Manhunt is the other end of the spectrum, leaning harder into its plot-based melodrama than the others do. The action is still plentiful, but it is delivered through an altered framework. It is a return to the genre for Woo, but it is self-referential and actively an homage to the bygone years of cinema. The film opens with two characters connecting over their nostalgia for classic films and how they aren’t made like that anymore, much in the same way that the film’s primary audience is watching Manhunt with a fond nostalgia of John Woo’s past films in mind.

The opening scene signals the film’s throwback tone and extravagant action — all of which is very fun and entertaining — but the key difference is that we’re now in the era of CG FX work. Now those glorious moments of John Woo mayhem are tinged with CG blood and obvious green-screen work, all captured on digital cameras. No matter how great they are, they will never compare with the unfiltered reality of Hong Kong filmmaking during the ’80s and ’90s. Manhunt is an enjoyable action film that will please lots of fans, but it also highlights the difference between nostalgia and reality. We remember and love the great films of the past, but they will always be products of their time. John Woo still has the chops to make great action films, but filmmaking has changed around him. The audiences’ desires for a filmmaker to go back to his roots cannot change this fact, and the mixed reaction to Manhunt is testament to this. It is not really a return to his roots; it’s more of a transplant of old ideas into the modern era, and whether that works and entertains will be up to you.

Within this context, Manhunt is a respectable film that overcomes its modernity and delivers its nostalgia with style. It won’t please everyone, but it is bursting with entertainment and intrigue if you can overlook some CG foibles and the odd choice to include a fair amount of stilted, often-dubbed English dialogue. Instead of calling it a return to heroic bloodshed, it’s more accurately John Woo looking back on genre action films of the past and paying homage. It definitely ain’t a resounding success, but it’s fun and that counts for a lot.