MANHUNT (2017) review

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In John Woo’s Manhunt, a remake of the classic 1976 Japanese thriller of the same title, Zhang Hanyu is Du Qiu, a successful lawyer who’s been working in Japan for a big and shady pharmaceutical company headed by Sakai (Jun Kunimura), who is passing the torch to his son Hiroshi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). But when Du wakes up with a dead woman (Tao Okamoto) in his bed, no recollection of what happened but all clues conveniently pointing to his being the murderer, he must go on the run. Hunted by hard-boiled cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) as well as by two female assassins, Rain (Ha Ji-won) and Dawn (Angeles Woo), who work for Sakai, Du can only rely on the help of Mayumi (Qi Wei), a mysterious woman linked to his past.

Understandably much-heralded as a return by John Woo to his legendary late-eighties style, especially after the costly misfire of his epic and melodramatic two-parter The Crossing, Manhunt is a strange film. Because while it certainly can be enjoyed purely as a brisk, entertaining 100 minutes of passable thrills, when viewed with the expectations that such an influential filmmaker carries it feels limp, at times cringe-worthy. That the story is a half-assed collection of “man on the run” thriller tropes is besides the point: complexity or narrative subtlety have never been among Woo’s trademarks, and he’s never needed them to impress. He is an emotional director, relying on visual style and the charisma of actors portraying strong archetypes or strikingly tragic figures (or both). Here, Du Qiu is a blandly solid central figure that even the considerable talents of Zhang Hanyu can’t make memorable; the actor’s main achievement here is pulling off 40 remarkably well for a 52 year-old man. The character is stuck in a conspiracy that goes from generic to ludicrous, with a near sci-fi twist at the end that comes out of left field and undermines the finale by enhancing the strength of key characters to superhuman level (though it gives the ever-excellent Yasuaki Kurata an occasion to shine). Truly head-scratching.

What’s even more head-scratching are the dialogues. Much of the main players’ lines are in English, and almost none of the actors speaking these lines can speak English with the sort of fluency that allows for nuance – or even basic proficiency – in delivery. It doesn’t help that whoever wrote those English lines can’t possibly be more than 8 years-old. Hear Masaharu Fukuyama (risibly dull in the one role that just begged to be played by Chow Yun Fat) utter direlogue like “There is only one end for a criminal. A dead end.” like he’s just burnt his tongue with a blow-torch and hit his head with a fire extinguisher; to which Zhang Hanyu answers “I will be back. With the truth.” His pronunciation is more fluid, but somehow he’s decided to deliver his English dialogues in a Batman voice and William Shatner rhythm. Sample another mind-boggling line: “What does it feel like to lose someone you love?”, “It feels like pain. And it lasts a long time.” Who. Wrote. This. Only Angeles Woo, daughter of John and quite good as an assassin, displays any bilingual aptitude.

But never mind the ridiculous plot turns (another one involves Ha Ji-won falling madly in love with the lead character in just a few seconds of stilted flirting), and ear-splitting dialogue: how’s the action? A lot of it, for much of the film’s runtime, is entertaining but perfunctory: gripping moments like a cliff-edge fight in then out of a car, or an assassination in a quaint Japanese inn offer only flashes of excitement. A jet ski chase is marred by subpar green-screen work, while the finale in a pharmaceutical lab is weighed down by poor pacing and the aforementioned puzzling plot turn involving a superhuman drug. But the film does recapture the glory of bullet-ballet in a scene where Zhang, Fukuyama and Qi Wei (a classy revelation of whom we want to see more), fend off the attacks of an army of motorbike-riding assassins in the Japanese countryside. A superb set piece during which the film altogether ceases to disappoint.

In a way, despite how much we love John Woo and do not believe for one second that he has lost it (The Crossing was often impressive, and the masterpiece that is Red Cliff came out not that long ago), he seems to be constantly getting in the film’s way, with very odd flourishes, like overused freeze-frames, which are of course a throwback to eighties’ Hong Kong cinema and Woo’s own classics, but are here not only overused, but also appear at odd moments and are usually followed by clumsy transitions. And then there’s the matter of the self-references, which range from heart-warming (who loves the doves? Woo, that’s who.) to blunt and in-your-face (yes, a character actually says the words “a better tomorrow”). Taro Iwashiro’s score is all saxophones and steel drums – is there a more ‘eighties’ combination? But there is something unsightly about the marriage of heavy-handed throwback and clumsy modernity, like the aforementioned bad green-screen, or the fact that the digital photography makes the actors’ make-up all too apparent.

Long Story Short: Plagued by a silly plot, clumsy flourishes and cringe-worthy dialogues, Manhunt only fleetingly recaptures the glory of John Woo’s bullet-ballet classics. **

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