Review: Manhunt, Orbiter 9, FullMetal Alchemist

I have a lot of films backlogged right now, so here’s another set of short reviews.

Manhunt

Trailer

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Now kiss…

When Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu), the lawyer for a major pharmaceutical firm, finds a dead woman in his bed, he is forced to go on the run from a police force happy to believe he is the killer. One of the only one who doubts the convenience is veteran detective Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama): his own hunt for Du will eventually unearth a conspiracy of epic proportions.

I am not as familiar with the back catalogue of John Woo as I perhaps should be, given his apparent importance for a whole geographical portion of the film industry, and that was one of the reasons I decided to give Manhunt, an adaptation of a Japanese film, a go. Part of my issue with Manhunt came from blinkered expectations: it being John Woo, I was expecting lots of kinetic action sequences wrapped around a half-decent, but grounded, plot.

What I got instead was some sort of bizarre amalgamation of The Fugitive, Serpico and The Winter Soldier, as Manhunt rapidly goes from “Man on the run for a crime he didn’t commit” combined with “The one good cop” to vast government conspiracies, secret labs and super-soldier serum(!).

You read that last part right. To say that Manhunt goes off the rails in the latter half of its very lengthy running time would be an understatement, but it is not without its charms. It’s a weird mix of boilerplate and absurd: the man on the run, the corporate intrigue, the cynical veteran and the naive rookie working together, like any one of a million crime dramas you’ve seen, but then throw in the insanity: a sibling pair of genetically altered assassins, increasingly improbable fight scenes (one, in a country house, just won’t stop escalating) and the aforementioned super-soldiers. The film goes so far past its start point, it’s like you’re watching a different one by the time the credits roll.

It’s acted fine, even if the script the cast is given goes from hackneyed to bizarre at the drop of a hat (“There’s only one end for a fugitive…a dead end”), and the clunky manner of the editing doesn’t help. Woo is clearly more interested in the action, and his operatic slow-motion style is well in evidence here, it being the bread-and-butter style film-making that keeps Manhunt from being a complete disaster. Hand-to-hand, gunfights, even a jet-ski chase, they are all here, and some of them are quite diverting, but there is nothing in Manhunt that would stay long in the memory. If Woo is seeking for this to be a revival of what appears to be a somewhat flagging career, then he is just going to have to keep trying.

Perhaps I’m better off with Woo’s western efforts, like Face/Off or Mission Impossible II, engaging action thrillers that were polished, enjoyable experiences even if they crossed into the realm of silliness or satire. Like them, Manhunt features lots of doves (some of which literally interrupt the action), but it simply isn’t as entertaining or watchable. Not recommended.

Orbiter 9

Trailer

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Wink, wink

Isolated on a long-haul colonial trip, Helena (Clara Lago) sees another person for the first time in years when Alex (Alex Gonzalez) arrives for a brief stop-over to fix a mechanical problem. Their limited but entangling time together leads to explosive revelations, as every part of Helena’s life is revealed to be a facade.

Now this is a bit better. A Spanish-language film out of Spain and Columbia, Orbiter 9 could easily devolve into a maudlin and insipid love story to the detriment of the science-fiction thesis it wants to make. Instead, it manages to skilfully combine the two, in a low-budget production that makes excellent use out of its numerically limited sets, cast and scope.

The first act plays out much as the premise would suggest, an interstellar liaison between a lonely colonist and a stand-offish engineer.  The inevitable happens, and there is a certain quiet, desperate melancholy to the whole thing that is very affecting, as Helena awkwardly makes dinner, attempts small talk and then gives up the pretence and makes her intentions and desires clear.

The twist, if it can be called that, comes at the top of the first act, and considerably alters the nature of Orbiter 9, turning it into a mix of identity crises, Bourne and frantic love-story, like Passengers only not terrible. Only 90 minutes + change, Orbiter 9 manages to keep things going at a refreshing pace, neither break-neck nor slow, giving space for the film to be more than it easily could have bee, asking questions of the audience, like what your identity means when the very basics of it have been stripped away, the nature of efforts to save the species running up against basic moral qualms and whether, simply put, love really can conquer all. Orbiter 9, without ever becoming preachy or overly-sentimental, lays it all out competently.

Both Lago and Gonzalez, relative unknowns in the wider film-making scene, put in a good shift here, especially Lago, who has to mix potent blends of despair, loneliness, inquisitiveness and wonder into her performance. She and Gonzalez have a good on-screen chemistry, which is critical to the film’s success. Some of the supporting cast aren’t as good – Andres Parra’s bureaucratic antagonist  and Kristina Lilly’s trippy future therapist are by-the-numbers – but by and large Orbiter 9 does a good job with its principals.

The surrounding “not too distant future” is well realised enough, an aura of over-crowding and impending doom papered over by a facade of clean government buildings and pristine forests. Parts of the world, like Alex’s apartment, seems remarkably lived-in, a far cry from the quality of other productions with larger budgets (see below) and it is the little touches that make the most difference.

Low-budget sci-fi offerings like this are few and far between: even if it’s only on Netflix, it deserves an audience. Recommended.

FullMetal Alchemist

Trailer

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Yes.

As children, brothers Edward (Ryosuke Yamada) and Alphonse (Atomu Mizuishi) tried to use the magical art of alchemy to resurrect their dead mother, with terrible consequences. Now, Edward works as the famed “FullMetal Alchemist” for the military government, seeking to find the Philosophers Stone, a mysterious object that may help him find a way to recover his brothers body.

I think the sum-total of my exposure to the manga/anime property that this is based on amounts to a single episode of Brotherhood, that felt like being dropped into the middle of a potentially compelling story, you just don’t have a clue what’s going on. The live-action version, from director Fumihiko Sori, has much the same flaws, presuming prior knowledge of its plot, characters and universe, but ultimately does not come with something entertaining.

Despite being standard for fantasy films of this type, it’s the length that is the real killer, as FullMetal Alchemist is an astonishing 135 minutes, and boy does it feel it. The film’s somewhat episodic nature, taking its cues from the other visual adaptations, simply does not work bundled up together, with every sequence, especially a truly execrable finale, padded out to the utmost with unnecessary lines of dialogue, slow-motion cinematography and lame action sequences. The editing choices here, especially regards the gradual reveal of the brothers’ backstory, are rather bizarre in their truncated and randomised nature. A multitude of characters, some of apparently great importance, come and go so fast it’s hard to get a read on them or the world they inhabit, a sort of Steampunkish Renaissance Italy with some nods to Nazi Germany.

While Yamada is alright as Edward, giving the film someone interesting at its core, and the general premise of him seeking a way to atone for the past mutilation of his brother keeps you hooked, the film aims way too high with its plot, where super-powered personifications of the seven deadly sins are trying to take over the world, or something. Much better would be a more down-to-earth tale, perhaps involving the morally dubious scientist archetype who takes up so much of the second act, or more involving quasi-love interest Winry (Tsubasa Honda) the only female character of note (beyond the ridiculous villains.

The CGI is decent enough, but the film has a sort of cheapness to it in other ways, with the world depicted as bare and lacking much life, and the sets being a multitude of empty warehouses, red-stone buildings and abandoned military barracks. You can’t help but think that the perfect costumes make the experience seem more like an anime convention cosplay than a universe you want to settle into.

If the aim of a film like this is to get people hooked into the larger priority, then FullMetal Alchemist is a dismal failure. If the aim is to a be a sort of official fan-film for those who already know everything there is to know about the “Law of Equivalent Exchange”, then I guess it’s a success. But for the rest of us, not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Media Asia Audio Video Distribution Cactus Flower, Dynamo, Mono Films, Telefonica Studios and Warner Bros. Pictures).

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