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Netflix’s John Woo movie Manhunt plays like a joyous parody of his action classics

Netflix’s John Woo movie Manhunt plays like a joyous parody of his action classics

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But like so many parodies, it runs into problems when it repeats the same gag too often

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Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review was originally published after Manhunt’s debut at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s premiere on Netflix.

It’s always possible that John Woo could have played the doves straight. The Hong Kong director behind action classics like Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow (and later American action movies including Face/Off and Broken Arrow) has turned the image of doves flying across the screen during a firefight into a signature trope, suggesting the end of innocence and the arrival of chaos. But his latest, Manhunt, which premieres on Netflix on May 4th, has a moment when a careening car approaches a dovecote filled with birds ready for their big moment. And that moment doesn’t read as portentous and tragic, like the dove sequences in Woo’s The Killer or Mission: Impossible II. Instead, it reads like a conscious in-joke for savvy audiences — especially when the car circles the cage teasingly before slamming into it and sending the doves across the screen.

That isn’t the only in-joke in Manhunt: toward the end, one character pointedly name-checks Woo’s filmography by promising “a better tomorrow.” Another says goodbye to a friend with a finger-gun gesture, but holds the finger-gun sideways, in homage to another action trope Woo popularized. In a more serious film, these moments might all pass as simple nods to Woo’s career and his fandom.

But in the deliberately goofy, over-the-top Manhunt, they’re more like sharp elbows to the side, an ongoing whisper-shout of “See what I did there?” Like so many Woo films, Manhunt is well aware of Hong Kong movie history and the visual language of international action movies. But it also approaches satire in its ridiculous mining of tropes and its conscious visual excesses. Everyone involved looks like they’re a moment away from outright winking at the camera. And the plot, which involves super-soldier assassins and the comically evil conglomerate enabling them, is often equally hard to take seriously.

What’s the genre?

Action, mystery, and action parody. It’s a remake of the 1976 Japanese thriller Manhunt, based on a Jukô Nishimura novel. But American audiences will probably see more of a touchstone in the 1963 TV series The Fugitive and its 1993 film remake. All these stories follow the same path, with a man framed for murder and trying to track down the real killer, while a tough but ultimately sympathetic lawman chases him down.

What’s it about?

There are a lot of plot threads running through Manhunt. In the primary one, Chinese lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is about to leave Osaka after managing a successful lawsuit involving the vast family conglomerate Teijin Pharmaceuticals. Then a woman turns up dead in his bed, the cop who comes to arrest him murders a different cop and tries to frame him for that killing as well, and Du Qiu ends up on the run. Meanwhile, two ruthless female assassins, Rain and Dawn, murder a pack of criminals. Cranky investigator Yamuna (Masaharu Fukuyama) deals with bubbly rookie partner Rika (Nanami Sakuraba) and their corrupt co-workers. Yet another plot involves the outcome of Du Qiu’s lawsuit, a woman who wants to see him dead as a result, and a secret formula to create unstoppable, bestial ultra-soldiers. 

But primarily, it’s about the manhunt for Du Qiu, which gives Woo plenty of opportunities for hand-to-hand combat, gun fights, and big chase sequences, including the inevitable one through a vast parade, and a much less inevitable and more surprising one involving jet skis.

What’s it really about?

There isn’t a whole lot of subtext going on here, apart from the vague hand-waving confirmation that big companies and corrupt cops are bad, and little-guy underdogs and justice are good. And also that jet skis can soar through the air in slow motion if you just gun them hard enough.

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Is it good?

It’s pretty hilarious, but that only goes so far in an action movie. Zhang and Fukuyama both declaim their dialogue (primarily English, with a fair bit of Japanese and Mandarin thrown in) with a deadpan force that makes almost everything they say seem overblown and faintly ridiculous. Some of that dialogue also seems to be written expressly for laughs — especially when Yamuna tells Du Qiu, “Trust me, there’s only one end for a fugitive — a dead end.” The suggested emotions are big, broad, and exaggerated, but the leads express those emotions with an exaggeratedly serious version of unbending macho. The action is similarly straight-faced in a laughable way: when that jet ski goes flying over Yamuna’s head, it passes him in slow motion, trailing CGI water in a bit of balletic choreography that’s charming and hilariously excessive at the same time.

But as with other straight-faced genre parodies like Shoot ’Em Up and Drive Angry, the more-is-more approach doesn’t supply many real stakes for the characters, beyond the momentary question of how a given chase will come out. Woo’s action sequences, always the heart of his movies, are at their best in Manhunt when he keeps them small and focused. A fistfight between Du Qiu and Yamuna in a moving car, which keeps veering toward the edge of a cliff as they fight for control, keeps the scale personal and the choreography clear. A later battle lets Woo pull off some signature moves, including combatants firing wildly while sliding down a flight of stairs, but it also gets exasperatingly chaotic and meaningless. Half the participants are masked assassins pulled out of absolutely nowhere to make a big splash and get shot, and virtually all of the rest have plot immunity. The small handful of cool stunts — including a moment where Du Qiu and Yamuna, handcuffed together, flawlessly coordinate the reloading and firing of a single handgun with their uncuffed hands — doesn’t entirely justify the pileup of uninteresting and anonymous bodies. 

Manhunt feels like an extended goof on Woo’s career, and on the audience — it’s as though he’s laughing at action fans for what they traditionally find impressive. The fact that he’s in on the joke, and that some of the jokes are at his own expense, makes the film go down smoothly enough. But it easily could have gotten by with half as many characters, half as many chases, and a hard limit of only, say, two dozen people flying through plate glass windows with no particular justification.

What should it be rated?

In spite of a lot of flying blood and bodies, Manhunt comes across as a pretty casual PG-13, with fairly minimal gore and only the mildest, most chaste hints at sexual content. 

How can I actually watch it?

Manhunt will be released on Netflix on May 4th, 2018.

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