‘The return of the maestro,” proclaims the publicity for “Manhunt,” the splashy new offering from John Woo. After his two-part “Titanic” wannabe, “The Crossing,” sank at the box office, the 71-year-old director has gone back to his roots in “bullet ballet” action schlock.
But what could have been an opportunity to show the kids how it’s done, like George Miller managed with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” proves to be a bit of an embarrassment. It’s got the white doves, gratuitous slo-mo and operatic gunplay that fans of Woo’s earlier films would expect, but the whole thing is as slackly executed as an “Expendables” movie.
“Manhunt” is a remake of the 1976 Ken Takakura vehicle (“Kimi yo Funnu no Kawa o Watare” in Japanese), which became a massive hit in China on account of being one of the first foreign flicks released after the Cultural Revolution. Viewers familiar with the original may struggle to spot much resemblance, though Woo’s version does at least have the virtue of being 40 minutes shorter.
The police detective that Takakura played in the 1976 film is now a Chinese lawyer, Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu). After wrapping up a lucrative job for a pharmaceuticals firm in Osaka, he bids farewell to the company’s boss at a lavish corporate bash, only to wake up the following morning next to a dead body.
Framed for murder, Du Qiu goes on the run, pursued by Japanese detective Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama), the kind of unflappable badass who can have bullets sprayed at his feet and not even flinch.
After brawling amidst flocks of CGI doves, racing each other on jet skis and clashing in a decidedly low-speed car chase, Du Qiu and Yamura realize that they have a common adversary: the lawyer’s former employer, Sakai (Jun Kunimura), and the female assassins he gets to do his dirty work, Rain (Ha Ji-won) and Dawn (Angeles Woo). Faster than you can say “Hard Boiled,” the cop and fugitive have joined forces to take the fight to Big Pharma, joined by the widow of one of Sakai’s former underlings, Mayumi (Qi Wei).
There’s some solid talent in the cast (look out for a memorable role by Hong Kong action veteran Yasuaki Kurata), but the trilingual script means that the actors are often working outside their comfort zones. Fukuyama and Zhang have to trade lame buddy-movie quips in halting English, while Ha’s indifferent language chops mean she keeps getting upstaged by her little-known co-star, Angeles (the director’s daughter).
The film’s seven credited screenwriters devise a variety of contortions to dupe you into thinking the story might not actually be as dumb as it initially appears. But narrative was never Woo’s strong suit; what’s most surprising is how sloppy the action is.
A fluidly choreographed opening sequence, in which Rain and Dawn lay waste to a roomful of yakuza, suggests that “Manhunt” is going to deliver the thrills. Yet if Woo demonstrates anything to younger directors during the rest of the film, it’s that you don’t need quick-fire editing to make your action scenes incoherent.
During a standoff at a country ranch, featuring galloping horses and a team of gun-toting assassins on motorbikes, the shots connect about as often as the bullets — which is to say, not nearly enough. The maestro may have returned, but he appears to have forgotten the score.