Every so often
in film history, an accomplished director and a talented
actor will become friends and team up for a variety of pictures,
thrilling moviegoers in film after film. John Ford and John
Wayne, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, and Martin Scorsese
and Robert DeNiro are all good examples. A Better Tomorrow
adds to that illustrious list, boasting yet another inspired
duo: director John Woo and star Chow Yun-Fat. For John Woo,
the film marked the revival of a then-sagging career. And
while costar Ti Lung got a similar John Travolta-style career
boost, it was Chow Yun-Fat who gained the most from the
collaboration as he ascended from mere dramatic actor to
a certifiable icon.
The plot of this 1986 film
centers on the lives of HK gangsters Ho (Ti Lung) and Mark
(Chow Yun-Fat), two triads living the highlife due to their
involvement in a counterfeiting scheme. Ho's younger sibling
Kit (Leslie Cheung) adores his elder brother, but before
long the two become separated by their professions. While
Ho's a slick crook, Kit's quite the opposite: a police academy
hopeful with something to prove. Despite his criminal ties,
Ho vows to walk the straight and narrow for Kit's sake,
but is instead double-crossed on that proverbial "last
job" and sent to prison. Adding insult to injury, Ho
and Kit are horrified to find that a hitman has murdered
their father due to Ho's shady connections, thereby creating
a significant rift between the formerly close brothers.
And though super-cool gangster Mark avenges his imprisoned
comrade in a fantastic guns-a-blazin' revenge sequence,
the deed comes at a price: Mark's leg is crippled by an
Time passes, but old wounds
do not heal. With his chances for promotion shot straight
to hell due to his brother's checkered past, Kit is a cop
on a mission with a huge chip on his shoulder. In addition,
poor Mark has fallen from grace in the organization becoming
more or less a janitor due to his hobbling injury. On the
other hand, Ho finds some luck in his life by getting a
job driving a taxicab for a boss (Kenneth Tsang) friendly
to ex-cons. But unfortunately, it would seem that Ho's relationship
with Kit is irreparable. Even worse, former lackey Shing
(Waise Lee) has become a crime boss in Ho's absence and
has taken umbrage with Ho's adamant desire to stay honest.
Angry at the snub, Shing goes after Ho's loved ones: Kit
gets plugged (he survives) and Mark is beaten half to death.
In the end, the trio form an uneasy alliance, fulfilling
an earlier philosophical musing by world weary Mark. When
questioned about the existence of God, Mark responds, "Yes,
I'm one, you're one. A god is someone who controls his destiny."
And with guns in the hand, they do.
What is perhaps most noticeable
about the film are its principal themes of friendship and
honor within modern society. In A Better Tomorrow,
we encounter characters motivated not by cynicism and self-interest,
but by love and mutual respecta prototype of sorts
for future films in the "heroic bloodshed" genre.
While A Better Tomorrow may lack the gleeful intensity
of its sequel's gonzo final act, in some cases, these so-called
deficits actually work to the film's advantage. Devoid of
much of the overdone "Woo-isms" that populate
the director's later films (and have actually become groan-inducing
clichés), A Better Tomorrow is a polished,
resonant piece of HK filmmaking and an absolute genre essential.
(Calvin McMillin 2002)