A Better Tomorrow II Review
Returning the following year after his smash hit A Better Tomorrow, a film that would come to be known as a defining factor in forging the heroic bloodshed genre, John Woo returned with the same crew to make a sequel. The best continuations to a series are always made on the bounce after a success; it’s the reason so many modern films, with even the vaguest notion of a trilogy being attached in future, opt to keep a quasi-rolling production. Keep the team together, strike whilst the iron is hot and hopefully with everyone on the same page and the ideas still freshly swirling in creative minds you’ll come up with a Godfather Part II, rather than letting the water stagnate and ending up with something akin to the lamentable Part
Getting the gang back together was hardly the problem; those behind the camera, with the resonance of a breakaway hit still echoing in their minds, were hardly likely to pass up the chance to continue what seemed a rich vein, both in creative and commercial terms. The problem lay with the acting talent, and in particular one newly crowned idol of Hong Kong cinema – Chow Yun Fat. How do you continue a crime drama when you’ve already killed off the most iconic character and the one audiences would most want to see in another story? Simple, bring him back from the dead. In a twist that’s almost as incredulously simplistic and condescending as Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower in Dallas to confirm an entire season of the show was a dream, Woo merely puts Chow in the role of Mark’s twin. If the first film was tightly wound in exploring themes of brotherhood, the sequel forgoes such high-minded notions as script logic and just brings the fans what they want: director, cast, score and lots of guns.
Woo plays on the duality of mirroring the first film in many ways, beginning with Ti Lung’s character Ho in his prison bed having a dream that leaves him waking with a start and drenched in sweat. In the original he was worried about his brother, now he’s having nightmares of his friend Mark’s death (to be fair it was pretty memorable). It seems poor old Ho is still ever the worrier, and now, thanks to a haircut that’s removed the collar-flicking length, faintly radio DJ-esque ‘do of the first film, he looks more mature and just as hangdog in his doleful expressions. He has a lot on his plate, Chief Inspector Wu (who is every inch the comic book detective, puffing on his pipe in between thoughts) has roused him from his prison slumber to tempt him into a deal – go undercover and snitch on his old friend Lung (Dean Shek), whom the police believe is still active in the underworld, and repay his debt to society. It’s not a deal that sounds greatly tempting, one wouldn’t expect a hardened criminal to jump at the chance, but remember this is a John Woo flick, where even gangsters have scruples, and none come more scruple-fied than dear old Ho; even when things go swimmingly for him he looks like he thinks he’s left the gas on.
The clincher that finally twists his arm is the news that his brother has gone undercover – always his Achilles heel, Ho can’t stand by and risk him being hurt so agrees to betray his old mentor. Now, Woo could have infused this sequel with as much twisted logic of bravado and debts that he wove into the first, but instead takes a turn into territory that is more palatable for an audience, but also dare I say it, slightly boring in terms of character choices. Lung has gone straight, as, in the end, has everyone else we’re intended to root for. A Better Tomorrow made an idol of Mark, the suave gangster fallen from grace who wanted to regain his place on the top of the heap, or at least prove a formidable foe in defiance; he was guts and glory in the name of brotherhood and ultimately his own ego. Number II in the series dispenses with this grey area of criminals taking centre-stage and switches to a more understandable good guys (reformed criminals) vs. bad guys (those still in “the life”).
With both Kit and Ho undercover, there’s room in this more straightforward tale for tension due to the possibility of someone discovering their motives, but this only pops about here-and-there rather than being a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse. Besides, when a power-play leaves Lung on the run and framed for murder, and the real villain makes his move on Lung’s legitimate shipping business for his counterfeit operation, the spectre of violence looms over the narrative and most will be patiently anticipating the first flourishes of Woo’s trademark choreographed slo-mo gunplay. It’s just over an hour before we get to see a proper confrontation, and as with the original, there is one inventive sequence in a tight interior that whets the appetite and a final set-piece on a far larger scale.
If anything the sequel trumps the original in this respect, the disappointment of having Ti Lung and Chow Yun Fat on separate continents for over an hour (the twins story is ham-fisted at best, but at least the logic of separating the characters by an ocean makes a crumb of sense) is soon dissipated by the proper stuff – a men-on-a-mission story of a group out for justice. Unfortunately none of Woo’s band in the sequel are of the recidivist sort, even Lung, whose daughter has been slain, seeks to get evidence and do things the right way – now if only there was a tipping point, say someone important getting killed that would force their hand into a more direct approach rather than this Famous Five playing detectives malarkey……..
Bloodshed leads to bloodshed, one of the group doesn’t make it through to the finale (you won’t need a clue as to who it is as the script follows the law of “the goner” in movies almost to the letter) and as such we the viewer mourn his loss, but sneakingly thank him for his sacrifice as it allows our remaining band of brothers to go past the tipping point into all-out war, and these lads don’t do things by half. Subtlety is for wimps, Ken dons his brother’s bullet-riddled overcoat, and the men, still suited post funeral, head towards their fate. The sight of Chow walking over the brow of the kingpin’s mansion drive, looming into view carrying a shotgun in one hand and a sub-machinegun in the other is pure action gold. Sure, the gunfight in the middle of the film was more inventive, diving down stairs backwards whilst shooting a man on the landing numerous times in slow motion, and it was charged thanks to one of the better scripted moments (a mini-speech whereby Ken outlines a sort of life philosophy “I have no regrets. I need no pity”), but it wasn’t as plainly gratifying. Boil any kind of action cinema down to its constituent parts and what you’ll generally get is the audience’s wish to see a charismatic character embroiled in grand spectacles of violence, and Woo gives us just what we asked for.
The edit is still poor, the differences between producer and co-writer Tsui Hark and Woo have left us with a film that, in places, explains little and often relies upon the viewers’ blind acceptance that there might be some logic buried within. Woo’s original vision was far longer, but Hark, in a move that’s been somewhat harshly portrayed as merely a producer’s desire to pack in cinema audiences and thus keep the length to a minimum, preferred a pared down version. Agreement was not forthcoming and what we have is a cut that probably does both a disservice; keeping Woo’s action intact but at the expense of reason and by proxy laying part of the blame at Hark’s door as producer. Hark is a capable director in his own right (Once Upon a Time in Chinaand The Blade would be desirable on the CV of any Hong Kongdirector), and Woo we know can descend into over-elaboration regarding levels of heroism and tragedy as well as clichés aplenty. Presently, Kit turns up with marks on his face and there is no mention of how he received the scars. Ken locates Lung without any real explanation of their relationship or how he found which nut-house he was in. Kit lacks any connection with his wife and seems absurdly distant. As for how Ho was blissfully unaware that his best friend had a twin brother, when apparently even his mentor in the criminal world, Lung, has a connection – well, I’d like to think that too was an editing issue, but the less anyone tries to explain the absurd twin angle the better. At least the action seems untouched (even if we don’t get to see Kit taking a beating) and for all the rough edges, the pacing is spot on; action scenes and top Chow moments integrating Koo’s excellent score at key points to keep us ticking along until the big blockbuster ending.
Don’t question how Chow reloads a pump-action shotgun without a spare hand, and counting bullets is for squares. Ho, Ken and Lung cut down swathes of their enemies in a pure white mansion that shows every splatter of blood and speckle of buckshot. This final scene even offers perhaps the best instance of Chow being able to infuse a real element of playful charm into the creation of Ken, who by-and-large will always be identifiable only in comparison to his departed twin. He childishly weighs the explosives on a scale he finds, as he places them in various places before blowing the counterfeiting headquarters sky high. The shot of him being blown forward after miscalculating the power of another blast (the mansion becomes a veritable Guy Fawkes night) is comedic, as he picks himself up, blows the smoke off his charred clothes and pings off a witty one-liner (a happy accident as the charge really was unexpectedly large and the actor’s reaction as he winces and falls forward is very real). Yet the mood doesn’t lighten, and the revenge trip is still in full flow; Ken re-enters the mansion with a skip in his step, notes a grisly half-burned Mafioso on the floor and a devilish smile dances across his lips, he savours the moment for every ounce of cold-hearted satisfaction, shaking his head at the twisted individual desparately trying to raise his gun in vain. He offers a few words, but they are not meant to ease the dying man's passage into the afterlife as they are spoken with relish - “no, no ,no, no - sorry” - before finally delivering the coup de grace. The scene, all blackened walls, bloodied bodies and flames is hellish, and in this stygian carnage Ken is King.
If giving fans what they want was the prime catalyst behind every choice made for this film then John Woo very much succeeded. It isn’t as layered as A Better Tomorrow, nor does it contain true anti-hero characters that could stand against the figure of Mark, but the all-too-good characters are balanced with a nemesis that puts Shing from the original to shame. A shaded hitman, unblinking and imbued with a sense of fair play when it comes to duels, helps raise this from an action spectacle of a film for fans to a thoroughly satisfying revenge saga. From the moment you first witness him sat calmly in the corner of a room like a pious nun, watching his prey, white gloves on hands clasped neatly in his lap, you know he’s the real deal. Every kingpin needs a right hand man to prove a formidable enemy for our heroes, Fui-on Shing fulfilled that role in the original, and in a sound decision he is here once again, though obviously not reprising his role. The theory of throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the mix was clearly used, and it pays off. Whilst one fights Ti Lung with an axe – in a great example of utilising an actor’s skills Ti gets to show off some swordplay – the other faces down Chow in a Zen-like duel.
The outcome, of both narrative and viewing experience, is quite unlike any other. The final scenes bludgeon the senses with gunshots and explosions, but remain satisfying throughout. The film lacks the murky waters of criminality and brotherhood, preferring to err on the side of bad-guys-turned-good, but it can still muster enough emotionally charged moments to allow the firework display of squibs, blanks and pyrotechnics to fall on the right side of exploitative violence. It’s not subtle, but then again, who’d pass up the chance to see Chow Yun Fat fire eight shots from a revolver, reload a pump-action shotgun whilst having both hands full or Ti Lung cut down half a dozen armed men with a sword whilst they line up in single file. Cartoonish? Perhaps, but revenge has never been brought to the screen in quite such spectacular fashion.