Beginning its serialisation way back in 1985 and ending in the early nineties, Tsukasa Hojo’s City Hunter is a classic manga that hasn’t entirely aged well. The series has never received a full official release in English, and considering its near-constant barrage of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, perhaps it is for the best if it stays that way. Nonetheless, City Hunter remains popular abroad because, despite everything, it has a charm and humour that is hard to dismiss, and a central relationship impossible not to get invested in. The 1993 Chinese live-action adaptation, on the other hand, is another story entirely: though it does away with the manga’s most egregious sins, it simultaneously strips away all its character, leaving a story that is largely inoffensive but bland and forgettable.
The manga, which is largely episodic in nature, follows ‘sweeper’ Ryo Saeba as he takes on varied private detective and bodyguard jobs with the help of his assistant Kaori Makimura. After a brief prologue setting up how Kaori came to be Ryo (now Ryu’s) assistant, the film makes use of this episodic nature by choosing to create an entirely new mission for Ryu (Jackie Chan) and Kaori (Joey Wang) – something that is not in itself a bad move. This new storyline sees the pair tasked with finding the young daughter of a newspaper boss, who has run away to Hong Kong. Before long, all the major players somehow end up on a cruise ship under attack from a group of American hijackers, and it’s up to Ryu to save the day.
Like so many manga adaptations before and after, City Hunter struggles with what aspects of the source material to take out and what to leave in. Kaori’s famous oversized hammer, used to punish Ryo for his lechery in the manga, makes an appearance (albeit in a daydream), and the joke falls flat in a medium unsuited to the exaggerated physical humour commonplace in manga. The fact that this was considered more important an inclusion than the nuances of the lead characters and their relationship goes to show how misjudged an adaptation City Hunter is.
While Ryo is a comedic character in the manga (mostly due to his over-the-top woman-chasing and Kaori’s subsequent violent reactions), he has a serious side too, with emotion and some semblance of moral fibre underneath the childishness and disturbing proclivity for sexual harassment. This other side is what gives his character the complexity that makes him an engaging lead, but Chan’s Ryu is consistently one-note, a goofy idiot more akin to Johnny English than Ryo Saeba. It’s hard to understand how he was able to gain the reputation that comes with being the so-called ‘City Hunter’ when he spends most of the action scenes losing miserably, never showing the calm control his character displays in the manga.
Kaori fares no better. Her emotional complexity and changing feelings towards Ryo make her the manga’s best character, but here she is reduced to the Pretty Female Sidekick, more likely to be seen acting like a petulant child than showing any character or using her initiative to help Ryu. She and Ryu are kept apart for too much of their screentime to show the compelling dynamic between the two – though it would be naïve to think that such a dynamic could ever exist between these dull, lifeless versions of the characters. The only other character from the manga is police detective Saeko (Chingmy Yau), but like the central pair, her personality is almost entirely erased, to the point that she is reduced to little more than a ‘hot chick with a gun’.
It’s hard to miss the manga’s sexual assault humour, but replacing Ryo/u’s sex obsession with a desperate craving for food is a lazy decision that achieves nothing except bringing to mind all the times this particular gag has been used before – invariably in children’s movies. Unfortunately, this is not the only part of the film that elicits unflattering associations with kids’ films: the music and sound effects are deliberately cartoonish, as is the humour – though even the most mediocre children’s comedy will elicit more laughs than this. Apparently, this film is a comedy, but to call it such is more than generous when the funniest part is the outtakes reel played as the credits roll.
The plot itself is unremarkable, and could be from any mediocre nineties actioner. That isn’t in itself too huge a problem, as the manga’s storylines weren’t the most complex or original either, but without the humour and character drama to hold it up, the film relies too much on a plot too generic to hold the audience’s interest.
There is a moment in the live-action City Hunter when the action stops for what appears to be a music video sequence for one of the exceedingly poor cruise ship entertainment performers, complete with to-camera singing and non-continuity editing. It’s odd, cringe-inducing, and completely irrelevant to the plot. The fact that, tonally, it doesn’t really feel out-of-place is perhaps the most damning inditement of the film as a whole. By taking the bare bones of the manga and using them to make just another generic comedy action movie, writer-director Jing Wong has created a characterless and unfunny take on the story that completely misses everything that made the manga popular.
City Hunter is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.