Good news for everyone who loves artfully absurd action theatrics, John Woo is back. Oh sure, he’s made movies since Face/Off. The trouble is that none of them have come close to matching the magical mixture of beautiful choreographed violence and batshit insane melodrama that made him such a special filmmaker in the 80s and 90s. It wasn’t necessarily his fault. The local film industry was never the same after Hong Kong was returned to China, and Hollywood only let Woo go nuts in Hard Target and Face/ Off (Mission: Impossible 2 just let Cruise go nuts). Fortunately, this remake of a 70s Japanese thriller seems to have been created purely as an excuse to let Woo be Woo in a way that he hasn’t been able to do in decades. Sure, it’s ultimately a trashy B-movie. But it was always watching Woo elevate trash that made him so fun.
The set up is simple. Zhang Hanyu plays a lawyer framed for murder and Masaharu Fukuyama plays the eccentric and brilliant detective assigned to track him down. Those are the basics. Just enough to give Woo an excuse to serve up some ludicrous action scenes like a buddy bonding between the cop and fugitive done through a jet ski chase, a wedding party transformed into a shootout, and a battle against a gang of dirt-bike riding assassins while the heroes are voluntarily handcuffed to each other. It’s glorious stuff. So much so that you barely noticed how convoluted it all becomes once a pair of movie-nerd lady assassins, a vengeful blood-splattered bride, and a Universal Soldier style super-serum conspiracy somehow all get woven in with the bloodshed.
Manhunt is definitely all over the place. Characters seem to appear and disappear at will. Dialogue shifts between three languages without warning. Plot lines tangle until they are confused. Yet somehow it doesn’t matter. Why? John Woo, baby. He overstylizes everything so it flies by in a sugarrush of wild edits, jarring freeze frames, and goofy slowmotion. You’re always over-stimulated. The action, though fairly cheap by Woo’s old standards, is beautifully and viscerally mounted to make audiences giggle and cheer. It’s a wild ride and a romp. Sure, the characters don’t remotely resemble actual humans and the story is often pure nonsense. But when you’re having this much fun it doesn’t matter. That was always the John Woo gift: the ability to elevate pure schlock into gloriously goofy and artfully mounted entertainment.
Manhunt might not be prime Woo, but it’s close enough to satisfy anyone with a sweet tooth for action trash. With a little luck, it might even be the beginning of a comeback. Fingers crossed.