It has, with all due respect, been a crap decade for John Woo. We have no doubt that the legendary director probably still commands a healthy sheaf of greenbacks for turning up behind the clapperboard - but seriously, Paycheck? Windtalkers? Mission Impossible II? Hardly the kind of cinematic output that commands reverence.
There's an "ah, but...". There has been an "ah, but..." in every conversation about John Woo since he swapped Hong Kong for the lure of Hollywood in the early nineties. The "ah, but..." is Hard Boiled.
Hard Boiled, the eminently silly and stunningly stylish story of a tough renegade cop determined to bring down a criminal gang and its clearly insane boss, is the absolute epitome of Hong Kong cinema cool. Its action sequences, framed in slow motion and filled with two handed gunplay, influenced a whole generation of action directors and choreographers - few of whom ever quite managed to capture Woo's perfect blend of visceral, gritty imagery with effortless style.
And its iconic image; Chow Yun Fat's protagonist, Tequila, dressed in a riot police uniform, bruised and bloodied, with a shotgun in one hand and a baby held in the other arm... In one eye-popping still-frame lies the reason people still care about John Woo even after he traded in Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung for Jean Claude van Damme and Ben Affleck.
So. Stranglehold. Or rather, John Woo Presents Stranglehold - and having played through three of the game's huge, sprawling stages, we've got good news. It's John "Hard Boiled" Woo, not John "Paycheck" Woo.
On the most obvious level, the connection with Hard Boiled is clear - this is, in theory, a sequel to that movie. Chow Yun Fat, digitally scanned and rejuvenated to his 1992 appearance, once again takes the lead role as Inspector Tequila, once again facing off against a ruthless criminal gang - and taking the brute force approach, much to the chagrin of his bosses in the force.
The story, as you'd expect, is completely ludicrous - while still maintaining some essential level of grit at the same time. The first scene in the game sees a badly beaten policeman being executed, and Tequila is quickly led into an ambush when he tries to rescue said copper, only to find pictures of the man's corpse in an envelope instead. With pretty much zero exposition aside from vague threats of taking his badge from his permanently grimacing superior, this kicks off a gigantic orgy of gunplay violence as Tequila goes on a rampage to discover and destroy the policeman's killers.
Later levels we've seen gave us a glimpse of a few more characters who join the fray, including a kidnapped girl we think may be Tequila's daughter - but let's face it, you're not here for the character development or the sharp, intelligent dialogue. Much like Hard Boiled, Stranglehold treats its plot with contempt; it's a thin tracery of flawed logic that holds together the main event. The main event, of course, being Chow Yun Fat sliding over tables, jumping around in slow motion, and blowing things up.
On that front, Stranglehold doesn't disappoint. No siree. Hong Kong in this game is a city where police officers routinely have to get involved in dramatic firefights just to get through "rough areas". It's a city where everyone carries a gun, a city where drug smuggling cartels can erect vast, heavily guarded offshore complexes, a city where every street, market or bar is just another potential venue for an ultra-violent battle.
Conveniently, it's also a city where every criminal makes a point of standing next to an explosive barrel or underneath a large heavy sign. Doubly conveniently, it's a city where a renegade cop can shoot about 500 people in a day's work and never have to fill out any paperwork. It's our kind of town.
A high body-count, ultra-violent protagonist and unlikely storyline aren't really enough to set Stranglehold apart from any number of other third-person action games on the market, however. What makes this game interesting is its relentless focus on aesthetic; its constant focus on making everything look cool, effortless and exciting, even (arguably) at the expense of other aspects of the experience. Stranglehold's aim is to make it look like your input on the joypad is being translated into a John Woo action scene; simple as that.