There was fair reason to be excited for "Manhunt". It was John Woo's return to the modern crime action film, his signature style, after more than a decade away from it. On top of that, it was his first film of this style made in Asia since 1992's "Hard Boiled," in many ways the apex of his powers. However, while "Manhunt" checks a lot of boxes on what one would want from a classic John Woo shoot 'em up; a story of a cop and criminal and their relationship with one another, slow motion gunfights, doves, et cetera, in can't help but feel like its only artificially copying the key tropes of Woo's classic films without having the soul embodying it that made his other films action classics.
While no one goes into a Woo film expecting a smart, nuanced story, it is fair to expect that its stupidity is at least kept in check. In his best films, "The Killer," "A Better Tomorrow," and, "Hard Boiled," he briefly indulges in moments of excess and melodrama that are reined in by well written characters and stories that deal with universal themes, such as the conflict between faith and the needs of reality, or the issues with loving one's family in spite of their sometimes heinous actions. Then there are Woo films that use melodrama and stupidity to their advantage, such as, "Face/Off," that are aware of their own ridiculousness and ham it up for maximum effect, aware that it is all they are good for. But "Manhunt" occupies an awkward place that fits successfully into neither area. It's a film with no brain on its shoulders that still seems to take itself too seriously. It's a deadly combination that bring down the film more than anything, although there are still some elements of classic Woo that make it in.
One farmhouse gunfight sequence in the middle of the film is as close as anything Woo has done since "Hard Boiled" to capturing his classic style, with expertly choreographed fighting, excellent use of editing and slow-motion, and inventive use of the space and setting briefly create a classic John Woo bullet-ballet of yore. However, the rest of the action in the film doesn't hold up quite as well. The film's opening scene sets expectations high with its slick, tight camera movement, but unfortunately the rest of the film is plagued with overly tight, shaky camera work that makes the action hard to appreciate. It's a shame, since it was Woo's slick, clean quality to his action that always made him stand above other directors making similar work.
The film also isn't helped by Woo's apparent sudden obsession with digital filmmaking technology. There is nary a shot nor cut in the film that isn't altered by some effect, whether simple cuts are created into crossfades for seemingly no reason, shots are sped up and slowed down at random, creating a jagged, jittery mess, and different coloured filters and visual distortions warping our perception. It appears as if Woo went through every single setting in After Effects just to try everything out, and it is almost never necessary for telling the story efficiently, and often works against it. The story itself is a predictable conspiracy thriller about a pharmaceutical corporation using its products for brainwashing purposes crossed with a classic mistaken identity thriller, but the film's constant need to cut away to other scenes and flashbacks and awkwardly transition in and out of scenes with no sense of pacing or rhythm means that the plot becomes overly complicated when it really never needs to be.
Hanyu Zhang and Stephy Qi both hold their own with fairly naturalistic performances that compliment the more gritty aspects of the story, but Masaharu Fukuyama plays Detective Yamura like a cartoon character, leading for an awkward tension between the scenes he shares with Zhang where their styles never quite match up. It doesn't help either that the film floats between being spoken in Cantonese, Japanese, and English, with none of the actors seeming to have a firm grasp of all of them, leading to some poorly fitting and unconvincing ADR all throughout the film that looks like a bad Kung-Fu dub, except they are being dubbed with the same language they are speaking.
All in all, "Manhunt" really just highlights the sad reality that maybe John Woo doesn't have that special ability that he used to have that made his classic films the classics they are. My only hope is from this experience he can realize that and start focusing on trying to make something new and challenging him that will better suit where he is at now in his career instead of trying and failing to recapture his glory days.