It would be hard not to have a good time, at least some of the time, during “Manhunt,” veteran Hong Kong director John Woo’s return to high-concept, low-brow action, after his foray into period drama with the “Red Cliff” and “The Crossing” movies. But whether we’re laughing with the film or laughing at the film is a slightly less clear-cut question: “Manhunt” is a proudly daft action thriller, that shoots its double guns through the buddy movie and the wrongly-accused-man-on-the-run genre, and even ends up slow-mo sliding into sci-fi later.
But above all of that, it’s a kind of a John Woo Pinterest board, a kitschily self-referential mash-up of the Woo-hoopla he perfected during his decade-long reign of balletic, batshit mayhem between 1986’s “A Better Tomorrow” and 1997’s “Face/Off.” As awesome as that sounds, and sometimes is, “Manhunt” is sadly more pastiche than homage, especially during those moments between action setpieces where stick-figure characters say things like, “It’s like in those old classic films!” “You like old classic films?” “I love old classic films!” “Wait, I have a DVD of an old classic film in my car, let me get it for you.”
That exchange is what passes for sexy chit-chat as suave, successful Chinese lawyer Du Qiu (a convincing Zhang Hanyu, familiar from last year’s “Operation Mekong” as well as folly “The Great Wall”) flirts with the comely barmaid in a small traditional bar in Japan. Thankfully, no sooner has he gone to fetch that old, classic film then the barmaid, actually a highly trained assassin-orphan called Rain (Ha Jiwon), flings back the sleeves of her kimono to reveal a gun in either hand, and, tag-teaming with her similarly disguised sister Dawn (Angeles Woo, John’s daughter), proceeds to wipe out a back room full of drunken gangster-businessmen types. The women’s silks billow prettily in slow-motion, and their back-to-back team work has all the wow of classic Woo.
Rain and Dawn are actually the muscle for their ruthless father figure Sakai (Jun Kunimura), the head of the shady pharmaceutical corporation for which Du Qiu has completed some lucrative, if maybe not morally sound, legal work. But the morning after a company celebration, at which he’d met the mysterious Mayumi (Qi Wei), Du Qiu wakes up next to a woman’s dead body, is framed for murder and pursued by dogged cop-with-a-past Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama, faring less well here than in his other Venice title, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Third Murder”).
Gradually, Yamura grudgingly becomes Du Qiu’s ally (there’s a nice bit of business where they have to fight off a gang of goons while handcuffed together) and together with Mayumi they try to bring the pharma company down, along with its experimental drug that causes a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like transformation in its victims. The plotlines, lifted from Junya Sato’s 1976 film of the same name, which was itself based on a novel by Juko Nishimura, are more plentiful than plausible.
But plot isn’t really the point. Really it’s a throwback nostalgia trip to Woo’s glory days, from the golden-hued ’90s grade of the pictures to the generic, sax-accented action score, to the water-scooter chase to Yamamura’s line toasting “a better tomorrow” to the destruction of a small wooden shed that inevitably turns out to contain an apparently inexhaustible flight of fluttering white doves.
Accusations of point-missing will no doubt fly thick and fast as doves from a newly demolished dovecote, from those who come to Woo solely for the action bona fides. But for those of us for whom the director’s best work, like the brilliant “Hard Boiled” or the transcendently ludicrous “Face/Off,” is marked out not just by superior gun-fu but by the disarming sincerity with which he always sold the silliness, “Manhunt” is a disappointment. The writing is desultory, the characters undeveloped and stakes are low, if you discount the vague anxiety that builds up whenever heartthrob Fukuyama has to deliver English dialogue: Though the ultimate triumph of good guys over bad guys is assured from the outset, sometimes his line readings, of zingers such as “There’s only one end for a fugitive — a dead end,” are so mangled that there’s moment-to-moment doubt as to whether he’ll make it to the end of the sentence.
However much fun the film’s high points may afford, there is also something faintly depressing about seeing a once-inventive filmmaker plunder his own legacy for easy props. One could say there’s no better man to make a John Woo parody than John Woo, but when he was responsible for a clutch of actions films that genuinely redefined the genre, to a thrillingly non-parodic level, with a dexterity that still exists in the sculpted professionalism of his action scenes, “Manhunt” feels underwhelming and undercooked: distinctly soft-boiled.