A Better Tomorrow II

Sometimes a single scene can make a career; A Better Tomorrow has a scene that made two. Nearly half an hour into John Woo's film, an implacable Chow Yun-Fat, clad in a trenchcoat and equipped with two pistols, performs a dinner-table assassination, then retreats to retrieve a series of guns previously hidden to allow a safe egress. The whole sequence, which alternates swift action with slow-motion details, plays out in less than two minutes. Still, it proved long enough to establish a new breed of Hong Kong action film and a new type of action star, though its director had labored anonymously for years within the Hong Kong studio system and its star had seen his modest early-'80s success erode by mid-decade. A huge hit in Southeast Asia upon its 1986 release, A Better Tomorrow sent hundreds of would-be Chows into the streets to learn firsthand the foolishness of wearing trenchcoats during Hong Kong summers. This development doubtless disturbed Woo, as it revealed how many fans missed the point. It's worth noting that in the key scene, Chow suffers an injury that reduces his character to ruin for the remainder of the film, as the whip of violence snaps back with unexpected suddenness. Contradictory though it may be, for all his fetishization of bloodletting, Woo's work also displays a clear hatred of it, as A Better Tomorrow—only now, alongside its sequel, receiving wide American video release in its original form—ultimately makes clear. As much an examination of the principles of friendship and family as an action film, Tomorrow dusts off an ages-old melodrama plot: the relationship between two brothers, one (Ti Lung) a gangster, the other (Leslie Cheung) a cop. Chow has a supporting role, his character serving as an example of the wages of sin, but he neatly steals the film. In him, Woo found the perfect vehicle for his career-long (not counting last summer's disappointingly undistinctive Mission: Impossible 2) obsession with the contemporary struggle between good and evil, a theme established here in bold, sweeping strokes. As good as Tomorrow is, Chow and Woo would go on to make even better films together. Though not without its virtues, A Better Tomorrow II isn't one of them. The first film's conclusion would seem to prohibit it, but here Chow returns as the never-mentioned twin brother of his character from Tomorrow. He seems a bit squeezed-in, as does some commentary on the first movie's success and a subplot in which Chow nurses a reformed gangster back from insanity. Overall, ABTII (Woo's least favorite of his films) plays like a halfhearted remake of its predecessor. Even so, superlative action scenes, particularly a bloody guns-grenades-and-swords finale with a body count to rival the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, help wash away many of the flaws. Action for its own sake may not have been the film's intended point, but it'll do.

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