A Better Tomorrow

Two brothers on different sides of the law, are torn apart by the death of their father, and destined to play their childhood game of Cops and robbers in real life.

Over two decades ago way back in 1986 Hong Kong director John Woo made two films. The first was Heroes Shed No Tears and the other was A Better Tomorrow. Both where great films in there own ways and both featured lots of gunfire and violence. Although both films could be said to belong to the Heroic Bloodshed sub genre of Hong Kong cinema, they were very different celluloid outings for the director in several key ways.  Heroes Shed No tears is undeniably a great fun film in my opinion, but in many ways it was thematically and stylistically a very Americanized take on the action genre. Ironically Woo's second action film that year A Better Tomorrow would instantly make his first feel dated. It was not just the move from the in vogue during the 80's action genre setting of war style conflict to a more urban setting. Though of course this was important, with Woo combining the huge death counts of 80's warfare action with a criminal underground setting. Sure Scarface has its fantastic final scene, but that was more a fitting end to the ultimate film about 80's excess rather than an attempt at an action film. It was not really even Woo's trademark "bullet ballet" action that made the difference, after all that’s not present fully present yet. A better tomorrow more a prototype for what would come in the killer and hard boiled. No the thing which puts this film on the map and by association Woo and Fat is the handgun. 80's US and Woo's own Hero's shed no tears relied on that behemoth of 80's film and television weaponry the AK47 and its ilk. With A better tomorrow the hand gun was to instantly become dreggier for the discerning action star. Not since the heyday of the "western" and its later re-incarnation as the Italian "Spaghetti western" had it played such a strong role in film. How ever it was not the six shooter or the revolver that would rain here but the clip loaded automatic handgun the 45. Where automatic rifles and machine pistols are unwieldy weapons, that demand a certain stance from the user even within the confines of the make believe world of film. The new generation of rapid loading, rapid firing hand guns left the user free to really move. Now you could jump, role, run and slide with a gun in the hand and with an added stroke of movie genius Woo seemed to figure out that if one made you look cool, two would make you look twice as cool. Woo gave Fat a second gun making a cinematic cliche and gaining the moniker "Two guns" Woo.

Starring Shaw brother’s legend Ti Lung as Ho, The sadly deceased Leslie Cheung as his brother Kit and Chow Yun-Fat as Ho's best friend Mark. The role which would see him go on to be one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable stars. The film also see's John Woo himself in the role of Inspector Wu and featuring a guest appearance from the very recognisable producer/director Tsui Hark as a Music Judge. Waise Lee turns in a strong performance as the slippery gangland boss Shing.

The tale is a simple one of honour, family, friendship and betrayal all common themes in both action and crime cinema. Where the film really excelled was in its new idea's and now iconic action set pieces including the fantastic corridor scene. In which we see a seemingly partying Chow (As Mark) placing guns in plant pots and then after carrying out a hit retrieving them to battle his way out. Right there is where Woo gave birth to "Bullet Ballet", something he would later hone to the point of high art. That’s not to say how ever the plot is not important it is indeed effective and even emotional at times and works brilliantly to drive the action. All this means when the final bloody scene comes the violence has both emotional and visual impact which was rarely achieved before this film and has rarely been achieved in the two decades since. Watching this again today made me think two things, the first Chow Yun-Fat really was the epitome of action cinema cool. The second films like S.P.L. fun as they are do not mark a return to the heyday of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed cinema. Please Mr Woo ring up Chow, tell him the tickets are booked and get both your asses on a plane back to Hong Kong and don't look back.

9/10

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A Better Tomorrow II

The three main cast members (Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fat) from A Better Tomorrow are back. Kit(Leslie Cheung) is now working on a dangerous undercover mission. The authorities feel his currently incarcerated brother may be of use. Ho (Ti Lung) is offered the chance to get out of jail early if he agrees to help. At first he turns the offer down, but soon he realizes the best way to protect his brother is to take the offer. Useing his former status to infiltrate the syndicate himself. Meanwhile the twin brother of the now deceased Mark(Chow Yun-Fat) is living in New York running a Chinese restaurant and trying to avoid paying protection money to the local wise guys.

Once inside the gang Kit and Ho both make contact with former mob boss Si Lung(Dean Shek) who appears to be going straight but is finding it difficult. It's not long before things go bad and the brothers smuggle Si onto a ship to New York, where he conveniently meets Marks long lost twin Ken. After some hi-jinx across the pond including a pretty cool hallway/stairwell shoot out the two return to Hong Kong and reunite with the brothers. From there on in the film drops some of its cheesiness and heads towards one of the best shoot out scenes of all time.

After A better Tomorrow became a massive surprise hit for Director John Woo and Producer Tsui Hark it was inevitable a sequel would follow. However for it to work the fans really wanted to see the show stealing Chow Yun-Fat on the screen again. The problem how ever was his character Mark Lee was killed off at the end of the original. To bring him back a very lame twin brother plot was put together. Still lame or not Chow needed to be there, great as Ti Lung and Leslie Chung are, it was Chow's character that really stood out. Joining Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-Fat is Dean Shek better known for comedic roles. Woo and Hark argued over the focus of the film, Hark wished to concentrate on Dean Sheks character, while Woo wanted Yun-Fat to be the focus. As a result of this and other issues between the two the film is patchy and does not have one consistent style. Some of the scenes in New York are pretty sub par, while others like the mentioned  shoot out are fun, though not up to the standard of the original.

The scenes shot in Hong Kong are better though the film still feels choppy. However as the film draws towards the end it settles down and has some great moments of both violence and a truly emotional scene. The films final shoot out takes things to another level, it's an action cinema piece de resistance.  In fact there's a good chance this is one of the top ten shoot outs of all time and makes A better Tomorrow 2 absolutely essential viewing. In fact this single scene is probably one of the most influential ever put on film as the black suits, handguns and swords come together and define what a bloody finale should be. Woo and Hark take the best from the past and combine it with their new heroic bloodshed genre to define brutal cool. Influencing the course of action and crime cinema once again and no doubt inspiring uber fan boy Quentin Tarantino and a legion of other filmmakers further. The shot of the hero's sat on a couch at the end is cinematic perfection. If only the whole film could have kept up to the standard of the finale this might have been the single greatest action film of all time. Sadly the whole film didn’t and it's not, but it's still essential viewing for genre fans.

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