A Better Tomorrow

tn_bettertomorrowIf you look for pictures from John Woo’s 1986 breakthrough A BETTER TOMORROW you’ll mostly find Chow Yun Fat lighting a cigar with a burning counterfeit American $100 bill, or wearing a real nice suit holding two guns. That’s from the beginning of the movie when his character Mark is a big shot in a Hong Kong syndicate. That’s not a better tomorrow, that’s a more financially stable yesterday. Most of the movie takes place years later, when Mark has been shot in the leg and has to wear a metal brace, so he’s now just an errand boy instead of a Big Brother.

mp_bettertomorrowIn fact, Mark is not the main character, I’d rank him at #3 in story importance. The movie focuses on Mark’s partner in crime Ho (Ti Lung) and Ho’s cop brother Kit (Leslie Cheung). Like Mark, Ho is hot shit at the beginning, considered a Big Brother by the gang, but he gets busted, while a trainee named Shing (Lee Chi Hung) gets away. After a 3 year prison bid Ho gets out and genuinely wants to go straight, to have a better tomorrow. He turns down high-paying crime gigs and works at a taxi garage owned and operated by reformed ex-cons. He hopes all this will allow him to become close to his little brother, but no dice.

See, while Ho was away that prick Shing worked his way up the ladder. Now he basically runs the gang, and he had Ho and Kit’s uncle assassinated. Kit blames Ho and won’t forgive him. He won’t even talk to him as an estranged brother, he tells Ho to address him as “Officer.”

Kit’s life is not strawberries and cream either. He’s been investigating this gang for years but he gets kicked off the case just for being related to Ho. His marriage isn’t going too hot either. He spends so much time on the case he’s not supposed to be on that his wife Jackie (Emily Chu) feels neglected. Kit could really stand to switch faces with Castor Troy for a while so his wife can get some attention. There’s a weird scene where Jackie sits looking at a huge, fancy birthday cake that she apparently made for herself while he completely ignores her to look through some files. She’s in tears by the time he finally talks to her, and when it turns out that he did remember to buy her a present it’s like that makes everything okay.

But you should’ve fuckin paid attention to her and ate the cake, dumbass! Looked like a good cake, too.

This is John Woo, so these relationships can be mended, but only after some bleeding. The old boss and Ho respect each other, but the gang is under new management. Shing wants Ho back on the team, thinking they can take advantage of his brother being a cop. So they try to force him into it through sleazy tactics like attacking the garage. Pushed over the edge, Ho does pick up guns again, but only to get his brother the evidence to put these dicks away.

Alot of John Woo movies are about the overlap between heroes and villains, the bad things good people do, the good things bad people do, the bond between cop and criminal, the unlikely respect between men on opposite sides of a fight. But the main theme here is the capacity for villains to become heroes, the fight to become a better man, the hope for a better tomorrow, or to prove that they have (according to the literal translation of the title) “The True Colors of a Hero.” Ho and Mark start out as these slick, cool anti-heroes, then they become regular working class individuals and their goal is not to get back on top again, it’s just to stay out of that life. Well, Mark kind of wants to go the “one last score” route, but Ho truly wants to go straight. And he has a going-straight mentor in his boss at the garage (Kenneth Tsang).

Kit, I have to tell you, is one of the dorkiest John Woo heroes. He’s just such a prude, kind of effeminate and in my  opinion a shitty husband and brother. Not exactly the type of movie cop you watch and think “I wanna be him when I grow up.” Mark, on the other hand, is really fuckin cool. When he’s rich he looks like THE KILLER, but later he’s more of a relatable tough guy wearing a black duster and chewing a matchstick. A BETTER TOMORROW was actually a surprise smash hit, a low budget movie without much advertising that broke Hong Kong box office records and influenced a huge run of crime movies throughout the ’80s and ’90s. And Mark stole the movie. Apparently black dusters became hugely popular after the movie and are still sometimes called “Brother Mark’s coat.”

I really like this one. It has a good melodramatic story, some impressively stylized violence (like when Mark gets a slo-mo punch to the nose and then the blood flows out. How did they even do that?) and a catchy keyboard theme song that I think is the perfect balance of cheesy and awesome.

In later Woo movies his shootouts and his style got more elaborate, bringing this type of movie up to maximum strength. But the power and the success of this one show that it’s really more about the characters and the emotions than the ten thousand flying bullets. There’s a great shootout where Mark massacres a roomful of guys responsible for setting up Ho. It’s kind of funny because he comes in with a bunch of guns in his coat and he stashes them in some potted plants in the hallway, then he goes in and shoots the guys, comes out and picks up the different guns as he needs them. It doesn’t make alot of sense because he already was able to fit them in his jacket when he came in, and nobody frisked him or anything, so why does he need to stash them? That’s what I thought but then I realized maybe he’s pacing himself. He wants to make sure he doesn’t run out of bullets so he parsels the guns out. By the time I get to this point in the hallway I should have this many bullets left.

But as much as I enjoy that scene I don’t like it as much as the one where Mark and Ho see each other for the first time after Ho gets out of the joint, and they embrace each other and talk about the shitty places they’re at in life and what they should do about it. Pure manly soap opera, the John Woo that’s not known by today’s generation that just makes fun of his slow motion doves and sideways guns.

Most of all I like this movie because it has that theme of redemption. You get to root for these guys and they’re almost doing the right thing. They’re the best type of movie-violence-creators – the ones who are only killing so they won’t have to kill anymore.

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 14th, 2010 at 1:26 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

46 Responses to “A Better Tomorrow”

  1. Cool movie, but nothing compared to the ultra-badass A Better Tomorrow II.

  2. I always thought the long black coat and chewing a matchstick look was one of the cheesiest badass outfits.

  3. Regarding the bleeding nose bit; the put fake blood into Chow Yuen Fat`s nose and closed his nostrils with honey. All he had to to was hold his breath and sneeze at the right moment. Take that, stupid cgi!

  4. I always thought he took a punch in the face!

  5. Of course, black trench coat and matchstick is cooler than a Terminators fetish for biker leather.

  6. Ace – with you on the matchstick – but you can’t diss the black coat! They’ve been badass for years until that fucker Keanu bastardized them in the Matrix and ruined it for us all.

  7. Darth Irritable:

    Dylan Klebold and the other Columbine loser ruined black trench coats long before Keanu in the Matrix

  8. Great film, and you touched on a lot of my favourite aspects of it, but the one scene which didn’t get a mention, that I absolutely love for Chow Yun-Fat’s performance, is the one early in the movie where the three of them, Ho, Mark and Shing are sitting around in a bar, and Mark tells the story about the time a job went bad and they had guns pointed at their heads, being forced to skull alcohol and piss. Of course, later realised in the Woo classic “Bullet In The Head”. Classic scene. Also, I always thought it was Ho and Kit’s Dad who got killed, not his Uncle. Love Ti Lung in this film, though it is hard to beat Chow.

  9. The original Paul

    October 14th, 2010 at 7:30 am

    I’ve never seen this one, but damn if Vern hasn’t sold me on it. A John Woo film in which he uses his signature tools with restraint (and not doing every significant moment in slow-mo, which always annoyed me about his later stuff) sounds like a great time.

  10. So much to love in this film. Some of the small, overlooked gems off the top of my head: The montage where Ho’s in prison and Kit advances through the dept. The ridiculous goon who taunts arresting officer Kit. Mark’s shit-eating photo on the i.d. card. Ho’s bottom-of-the-barrel expression from Kit’s pov in the rain, getting extra pathos in because Kit initially bypasses him … and then you maybe wish he had kept doing so. Ho out of jail seeing Shing descend the stairs and “pay” a hobbling Mark. And, during the pointedly cute children’s concert, when Ho cooks his own goose and literally disappears into nothingness. There are definitely awkward bits in ABT, but the whole thing is so heartfelt, and the emotions are given room to breathe (which helps a lot when some of the action feels like a rough draft for what was to come.)

    I’m going to start a fight here: It’s better than ABT2, which has more over-the-top action and some creative touches but feels more mechanical. Without ABT1, ABT2 would be noteworthy but hard to care about.

  11. Thanks for this Vern.

    Inspector Li: For my part, I like them both in different ways. Kind of like Mark and Mark’s brother in A Better Tomorrow 2, they are twins but are different people. No wait. They are both Chow Yun Fat. Anyway, it’s pretty remarkable Woo came out with the second film a year after the first. It seems like usually good sequels take longer to gestate.

  12. I was disapointed by this movie. It was the soap opera stuff that was the real deal breaker for me. I so wanted to like the movie, to be in the cool crowd that loves john Woo movies and think he’s a genious. Well, i just had to stay true to myself and amdit, that no, this movie is not that great as they say it is. Well, i haven’t seen THE KILLER yet, anyhow.

  13. vern you should check out The Man From Nowhere and Fire of Conscience when you get the chance. some new john woo inspired movies that i think are worthy…

  14. I agree with Inspector Li. 2 has the better action but without the investment created in part 1 the 3rd act would not be nearly as devastating.

    This movie launched my eternal love of John Woo. I was sold for life the second Chow lit up that bill. From then on it was The Killer (still the fav) Hard Boiled, shitty bootlegs of Bullet in the Head, excitement over Face/Off… Now I’m like a shook up junkie waiting for another fix of the pure stuff, but I may just have to do with the mescaline buzz of things like Red Cliff.

  15. Great review/write-up. Touches on a lot of the things that make this film so special. It certainly does maintain a perfect balance of cheesy melodrama and a truly compelling storytelling and characters.

    I recently wrote a tribute piece to the character of Mark Gor for my blog. It’s part of a series that I do on cool characters in movies. Check it out: http://www.scottsmindfield.com/2010/08/cool-characters-mark-gor-lee-searches.html

  16. It’s been a while but I didn’t think A Better Tomorrow 2 was all that great except for that final shootout. I remember it focusing too much on that guy who becomes retarded for a little while after his daughter got killed.

  17. Didn’t Judge Reinhold’s character put on a black trenchcoat for the final shootout in Beverly Hills Cop 2?

  18. Stu> Yes he did. Did it make him cool? No it did not. The black duster only works on Wyatt Earp and the like.

  19. a better tomorrow 2 is such a clunky title

    it should have been called a better day after tomorrow

    roland emmerich could be second unit and the doves could flash freeze fall out of the sky

  20. John Woo intended A better tomorrow 2 to be a three hour epic, but producer Tsui Hark took over the project and cut it down. That`s appearently why he directed A better tomorrow 3 instead of Woo.

  21. Thanks, Vern. As a kid I was never into this one, probably because it wasn’t the action-fest I wanted from Woo. Maybe in maturity I can appreciate it now. I don’t remember the potted plant scene. That sounds awesome.

    I didn’t like Fire of Conscience. It had fire in it and some conscience but it didn’t move me.

  22. I appreciate the John Woo melodrama as much as the next guy, but I gotta admit, I watch a Woo movie to see insanely awesome gunfights/violence. Therefore, A Better Tomorrow 2 is better in my eyes.

  23. The second one is the awesome, more-over-the-top sequel with the insane final battle, and a lot more ridiculous storylines (how Chow-Yun Fat character was able to return, or that whole weirdo catatonic dude thing). The first one is a more low-key version of the same thing. I really like them both, but for different reasons.

    But I still think HARD BOILED is the greatest action movie ever made. Yes, there are films with better storylines or characters, but as a pure action flick, that film hasn’t been topped in my eyes. So John Woo has earned my money and ass in the seat whatever he decides to make on that merit alone. Anything. Fortunately RED CLIFF (the extended two part version, of course) made my devotion to him more palatable again after the later era Hollywood de-tour.

    Although his next film (where he gets an odd co-director credit) looks remarkably bland, judging by the trailer. So he’s not completely in a full comeback mode yet.

  24. According to moviebodycounts.com, Hard Boiled has the most on screen deaths among non war movies with 307 (I don’t count grindhouse which has 310 since that’s really 2 movies). Fuck Yeah. Woo is my hero.

  25. Then Planet Terror has 306 since only 4 people die in Death Proof.

    A Better Tomorrow 2 isn’t nearly as good of a film but that scene where he asks the mobsters to eat his fucking rice is fucking badass.

    Also, I completely love the debut of the backwards slide down a staircase while shooting two guns gimmick.

    Anybody ever seen A Low Down Dirty Shame with Keenan Ivory Wayans. He tried really hard to direct his action sequences like John Woo but they’re so pathetic.

  26. For a shitty action movie, A Low Down Dirty Shame is not bad. The action scenes are ripped off from Woo no doubt (and badly at that). I do like the part in the mall where he die hard’s off the second story as the sporting good store explodes and as he reaches the floor, he grabs the henchmen’s machine gun out of his hands and shoots him as he’s flying back up.

  27. I just don’t love Hard Boiled. I think the action in The Killer is way more awesome.

  28. This is still my favorite John Woo movie. It’s not the most action packed and it doesn’t have the most memorable scenes, that would be Hard Boiled. What it does have is some restraint, a good story, and a great character in Mark. I don’t know why this one isn’t more widely loved in the states like it was in China. A Better Tomorrow II is also pretty good but completely ridiculous. Someone mentioned the rice scene in part 2, and I’ve got to say that is one of my single favorite scenes in any John Woo movie.

  29. I gotta send my love to Part III of these TOMORROWS. I find myself liking only parts of the first two and being sorta bored the rest of the time. The melodrama strikes me as slightly off-key – perhaps one has to be steeped in Chinese and/or Hong Kong culture to appreciate … – as if Woo is just about to peer around the film edge and say with a twinkle in his eye: “Nawh, just taking a piss! More guns!”

    I’m also fed-up with cool gangsters. Cool gangsters are for 13-year old boys entering their “world weary cynicism” phase. That’s gotta be a bar to entry, I wager.

    Part III a.k.a. LOVE AND DEATH IN SAIGON feels wider, more heartfelt in its exploration of loss and melancholy and somewhat less gimmicky in both effects and storytelling technique.

    Liked FIRE OF CONSCIENCE (daring heist with assault rifles in the middle of downtown? Where have we seen that before?) but it didn’t “stick” and I feel like I’ve forgotten most of it already (it was only 2 weeks ago).

    Maybe I’m just getting old. You kids get offa my lawn!

  30. a superficial review by a reviewer who doesn’t understand John Woo’s movies.

  31. Brad – What’s to understand about WINDTALKERS?

  32. brad – explain

  33. brad greenspan, i’m not the kind of person to say this lightly, but are you trolling? If you make such a statment, you better back it up, and with intelligent arguments. Can you dig it?

  34. Things to understand about WINDTALKERS:
    Good intentions can make for some terrible cinema.
    Filmming war movies as if they are action movies is A TERRIBLE IDEA.
    Mega-acting is not the best way to convey real human emotions.
    Christian Slater is really underrated and underused.
    Just because you are an indian doesn’t make you an automatic good guy and in tune with the Earth and the spirits and whatever.

  35. Anyone ever notice how in his small roles lately, Slater gets killed in less than bland ways? MINDHUNTERS he gets total liquid nitrogen and then break into pieces this side of T-1000. Then in WINDTALKERS, his neck meets Mr. Samurai Sword. Just a thought.

    WINDTALKERS is one of those damn movies where the material is good shit, along with irony that America won the Pacific with help from maybe the most mistreated minority by America. But alas, said material gets stuck with a boring, dull bland as vanilla wafers story and characters.

  36. HT, i gained respect for HARD BOILED because of that very long one take shootout sequence. I’m a sucker for very long one take shots that go from places to places and include complex actions from the characters in it’s mise-en-scene. I think that’s the best type of filmmaking that exists. Far better then that over-edited bullshit from the likes of Michael Bay and JJ Abrams and Renny Harlin.

  37. Baraka: Matrix released March 31, 1999. Columbine: April 20 1999. I stand by my Keanu-rage.

    Now you mention it, given the coat connection, I’m surprised the media didn’t try to pin it on Keanu as well as on one M. Manson.

  38. It’s very easy to make a trenchcoat cool again. Just wear a hat with it. (And I mean a REAL hat, not a baseballcap or some shit like that. No, a real hat for a grown up men. Y’know, an outdoor or a city (Bogart) hat. Not a cowboy hat, though. And a trillby isn’t perfect either, although I’m kinda okay with it, if you can’t get a better one.

    And weren’t the first VHS copies of Matrix edited because of Columbine? That’s what I’ve heard anyway.

  39. Darth: I remember thinking the same thing at the time: “they are going to blame Columbine on the Matrix.”

    Or at least “The Basketball Diaries”: DiCaprio shoots up his school in a trenchcoat in a fantasy sequence. But… nothing.

    Well there was “Doom”, they blamed it on the videogame “Doom.”

    So I guess I missed my calling as a media smear merchant: I would have had 48 point bold font on the front page with a picture of Dylan Klebold next to a picture of that scene where Keanu and Carrie-Ann Moss take on that building lobby full of police.

  40. Seriously, I don’t know what you are talking about. Maybe it’s just a German thing but “Matrix = Columbine” was all over the media back then!
    They also blamed a German douchebag’s killing spree on Blade 2, just because he had a poster of that movie hanging in his room. Some politicians even talked about banning that movie , but the distributor just pushed the release date back for a month and when it came out, nobody talked about its “bad influence” anymore.

  41. I do remember thinking how out of touch with kids I was after Columbine. Because if I was gonna walk into school like a terminator, I would have gone after teachers.

  42. CJ – in NZ they blamed video games. To be fair, Sonic the fucking hedgehog makes me WANT to break out the 12 gauge.

  43. Darth: Video games are the scape goat here too. They blame them for EVERYTHING. They even invented a special term. “Killer Games”.

  44. I bought´the UK 2-discspecial edition a couple of years back, released by Optimum Asia. Boy this version sure sucks. And the weird thing is; on the cantonese track they replaced parts of the original score with music from Forrest Gump(!!). has anyone here bought this weird-ass version.

    I think i´ll stick with my VHS Box-set of A better tomorrow…

  45. Just learned that the South Korean remake of this opened yesterday. There’s a trailer at CGV Cinemas’ site for the curious. Doesn’t look interesting, IMHO, but don’t know if I’ll be able to forgo. Also, they’ve apparently replaced the great theme music with something nicked from Chicago.

  46. Has anybody around these parts seen THE WHITE STORM? It is a heroic bloodshed film that is a throw back to Woo’s HK films and is heavy on the gun play and sentimentality. However, it is not a Woo film, and it doesn’t try to ape Woo stylistically in it’s use of cinematic language or how it presents action (there is not an abundance of slow mo, doves, or religious iconography), but the characters and the themes of friendship/brotherhood will all feel familiar to Woo fans. The Director Benny Chan used to work with Johnnie To, and it shows in his use of color and framing. Actually Aesthetically the film more resembles To’s work then Woo’s but the story, themes, characters, and sentimentality are all influenced by Woo’s HK films.

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