John Woo making his return to contemporary action/thrillers after 10 over ten years away is nothing to take lightly. After some time working in period action epics and melodramas, the man who practically reinvented the contemporary action movie is back in his old stomping grounds with Manhunt, a new thriller that premiered this week on Netflix. While having one of the biggest names in action behind the camera will doubtlessly bring a lot of attention to the film, it will most likely end up working against it in the end. Manhunt is a decent but forgettable action thriller, lacking enough energy, flair, or go-for-broke insanity to make it memorable. Because of this, context is the film’s worst enemy. If you’re even a casual John Woo fan looking for the usual stamp of quality his name carries, you’re in for a disappointment.
From a brief description of the premise, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Manhunt is a Chinese riff on The Fugitive. Du Qiu, a wealthy and respected lawyer living in Tokyo, must go on the run after a woman is found dead in his bed, forcing him to evade the police and clear his name by uncovering the sinister conspiracy that set the whole thing off. But that simple premise quickly gets bogged down with a truckload of extra elements, including but not limited to a pair of female assassins, one of whom is sympathetic to Du Qiu because he was nice to her one time (actual dialogue), and an increasingly hare-brained conspiracy involving super-soldier drugs. By the climactic showdown, a gunfight/brawl in the evil pharmaceutical company’s secret lab, the idea that this started out as a simple “on the lam” thriller is almost hard to digest.
That’s just part of what makes Manhunt an odd, inconsistent ride, though. True, the film is overstuffed with characters and plot points, but that’s only one part of it.
Formally, Manhunt is a far cry from the gritty, atmospheric thrillers that made Woo the massive movie figure that he is. Evenly lit and shot with a crystal-clear digital picture, the film has the same kind of hyper-glossy imagery that has, unfortunately, become common in Hong Kong cinema of late. Gone is the interesting lighting, camera work, and evocative imagery, in their place an aesthetic that feels more like a very lively coffee commercial than a John Woo thriller. In contrast to the washed-out color palettes that were in vogue just a few years ago, Woo instead opts for an indiscriminately bright and vivid color scheme, and the results are somehow just as dull. For those viewers who really care about presentation, Manhunt is dreadfully plain.
If you’re just here for action and thrills, there’s some enjoyment to be had, particularly in a later set piece in which two protagonists must navigate a tense gunfight while handcuffed together. But this sequence stands out less from being especially noteworthy or well-executed and more because every other major action set-piece in the film fails to make any kind of impression. There are chases and shootouts and a speedboat scene, but it all feels very rote and expected, more like the work of someone still getting the hang of what makes an action scene work — not a seasoned pro.
Very little, if anything, about Manhunt is outright bad. The action is competently filmed and staged, with at least one stand-out sequence, and we always have a clear picture of the stakes and the motivations of each of our many players. But what should have been a triumphant return to form for a powerhouse director feels like a dime-a-dozen action thriller by an emerging director. The film never lives up to its pedigree — technically competent but never going above and beyond. Perhaps if it had doubled down on its increasingly bonkers plot and gone into “so silly it’s entertaining” territory, Manhunt may at least have been noteworthy or memorable, but doesn’t even do that.
We live in a time where any discussions of context seem to get swept aside or dismissed when it comes to media criticism, where any mention of the discussion surrounding a film or something not directly related to the text throws your merits as a critic into question. Manhunt reminds us that context matters, that a film can and should be judged not just on its own merits but within its proper context. Free from any context, Manhunt is a serviceable if dull action thriller that will be forgotten as quickly as it appeared on Netflix. Within the body of work of one of the most influential and important action film directors, however, it’s a crushing disappointment. Either way, whichever angle you’re looking at it from, it’s not a terribly good film. Maybe, in the end, that’s all that matters.