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.



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.


Last Hurrah for Chivalry

On the day of his wedding local noble Kao is visited by uninvited guests. A deadly kung fu master named Pai and his men. Pai had previously lost much of his land to Koa's father and sensing that the son is weaker than his father he decides now is an opportune moment to strike back. A fight ensues and Koa is badly wounded and his clan devastated. Koa Bitter that he was not able to defend his family and was unable to defeat the deadly Pai, Koa sets about looking for a way to get revenge at any cost. In the town their are two great swordsmen, one the hot tempered Chang has renounced the sword and works with horses, the other Green spends his day's drunk when not taking on jobs as an assassin. It does not take Koa long to figure out there must be a way he can use them to take down Pai.

1978's Last Hurrah for Chivalry was produced by Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest and written and directed by none other than legendary action director John Woo. Woo spent most of the seventies working on Martial arts films and the early 80's working in comedy. It was not until 1986's A better Tomorrow that he would hit on the style that would make him a legend in his own lifetime, though his other 1986 action outing Heroes Shed No Tears should not be overlooked in terms of enjoyment. 1976's Hand Of Death was competent outing for the young Woo, but Last Hurrah for Chivalry takes things to another level and is much more than just a curiosity piece for those looking into Woo's early career. In fact Last Hurrah for Chivalry is a very, very good old school swordplay movie. Where Hand Of Death hinted at what was to come later in Woo's career, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is very clearly a Woo film hand guns aside. The classic Woo themes are now firmly in place with honour, loyalty and male bonding top of the menu.

The other thing that marks this out as a John Woo film is the action. There are no birdcages being broken or slow motion white doves yet, but the action is played at a breakneck pace. In the second half of the movie you hardly get time to draw breath so constant is the fighting. Though you can't describe the film as gory it's certainly very bloody as the various characters hack and slash their way through opponents. The plot follows the revenge theme as does most of the genre, but Woo manages to throw in some brilliant twists.

Wei Pai (Five Deadly Venoms) Damian Lau (Duel to the Death, What Price Survival) are great in the lead roles as Chang and Green respectively. Lau Kong is great as Kao and shows off some pretty mean fight skills as does Lee Hoi San (Magnificent Butcher) as bad guy Pai.

Chang and Green storming Pai's home and taking on his various guards make for classic old school kung fu stuff especially when they take on the deadly but narcoleptic "sleeping Buddha". Fans of both John Woo's work and Old School Kung Fu flicks should seek this one out.


Heroes Shed No Tears

The government of Thailand hires a squad of immigrant Chinese mercenaries to infiltrate the notorious golden triangle and capture a drug baron. If they can achieve this mission the squad will receive a nice fat pay check and green cards to emigrate to the US. How ever the Drug lord in question General Samton has a tight grip on the area and a large force of armed troops to back him up. Can a five man team really get in, capture the general and make it back alive to claim the reward?

After trying his hand at several genres’ including comedy, drama and classic Martial arts director John Woo hit open the sub-genre that would make him famous in 1986. The year would see the release of Heroes Shed no tears (maybe a reissue from '83 I'm not sure) and A better tomorrow. It was these two films that would set John Woo on a path that would make him a legend in his own lifetime and bring a new term to the lips of western film fans. In 1986 Woo put Heroic bloodshed on the map and his influence reverberated through the world of action cinema and is still being felt today in films like DVD hits A bittersweet life and S.P.L. For many the eighties where the heyday for action cinema. Rambo, Red Scorpion, Scarface, Die Hard, Platoon, RoboCop, Commando and maybe the most macho movie of them all Predator where born in the eighties. And in that climate on the other side of the world John Woo unleashed his own action classic Heroes Shed No Tears. The film is pitched somewhere between a Vietnam War movie and a one man army movie like Commando. Tough desperate men with shady backgrounds, Special Forces training taking down a drug lord, you might have heard the plot before but you won't have seen it done by Woo (Unless you have seen this film already).

What ever happened to the subgenre of desperate men on one last deadly mission movies? If you miss it, then this new release of Heroes shed no tears lets you travel back in cinematic history to a time when men where men. A time before everything had to be PG-13 and men became all metorsexaul and started wearing make up and buying Joop Jump for men. Back when if you wanted to smell "nice" you bought something Manly with a name like Brut or Old Spice. Heroes Shed No Tears follows the desperate flight through the Golden triangle of Chan Chung and his men as they try and make a better life for themselves by completing one last desperate mercenary mission. Joined on the way by Chung’s sister in law and son, as well as a French tourist they save from an attempted rape at the hands of a Vietnamese officer and a recluse white former US soldier from Vietnam who was once saved by Chung. In hot pursuit how ever are the men of the drug lord they captured. These are soon joined by those of the officer whose eye Chung shoots out of his head while saving the tourist. He in turn enlists the help of a Vietnamese jungle tribe with deadly tracking skills. As the odds mount up against Chung the flight through Vietnam becomes desperate and things get very bloody indeed.

Starring Eddy Ko (Hitman in the Hand of Buddha, Peacock King, PTU) as Chan Chung leader of the Chinese hit squad who gives a great performance as the grizzled hero. Featuring sadly deceased Hong Kong Legend Lam Ching-Ying(Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind,  Mr. Vampire). As well as a great supporting cast. I personally love this type of film and most of Woo's eighties work in general. While not packed with the "Bullet Ballet" style action scenes Woo was to make famous, it is filled with old school shoot em up style scenes and packs in a good amount of gore. When someone dies in this movie it’s messy and harsh, just the way it should be. It even has an irritating kid in the form of Chung’s son; you know the kind that gets people killed trying to save him. At first he annoyed me, but then I realised being annoyed at the kid is part of the fun, you can sit munching on your snack and drinking a beer while shouting at the TV screen "For god sake will someone just kill that fucking kid already". And Lam Ching-Ying's character does indeed have a good try at killing the kid by putting him in the middle of a ring of burning crops ... YAY! The great thing about this film and many of the Hong Kong films of the time is there is no guarantee who will live and who will die, in Heroic bloodshed movies being the hero does not automatically make you safe.

Buy Heroes Shed No Tears and reclaim your *Manhood

*I am in no way saying woman will not love this slice of macho fun too.





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