The controversy of whether you put a dash between Hard and Boiled continues
I’m still slightly recovering from the sensory overload that was the double feature of A Better Tomorrow and Hard-Boiled at the Mayfair theater weeks ago. Seeing these two films again is a good refresher on how to make a superior action film. I don’t want to waste too much time on these films as you probably know that they kick all sorts of ass, but let’s continue.
For now, let’s discuss a quick history of the impact of A Better Tomorrow. This was director John Woo’s first important hit. When it was released in 1986 in Hong Kong it was not only the highest grossing film of the year, but the highest grossing Hong Kong film at that point making HK$35 million. According to Karen Fang’s book A Better Tomorrow, the film grossed thirty-five million Hong Kong dollars. In comparison, the second highest grossing film of the year which was Millionaire’s Express (starring big names like Sammo Hung , Yuen Biao and Cynthia Rothrock) made HK$28 million. Sammo’s films were already popular but this was when John Woo was known as comedy filmmaker and Chow-Yun Fat was known a comedic actor in television. Hard to believe that was ever the case. The film had two sequels, a remake, and several derivatives such as Wong Jing’s Return to a Better Tomorrow.
Of course, sales and popularity mean nothing unless the product itself is strong and can holdup nearly 30 years later. I’m happy to report that A Better Tomorrow does hold up despite not being as popular as Woo’s other Hong Kong flicks, namely Hard-Boiled and The Killer. It is noticeably different, A Better Tomorrow is less action-oriented and more operatic than either of those films. But thankfully for fans who can be won over without truck loads of action, it’s just as flashy and stylish as Woo’s best work. How stylish?
Obviously very stylish.
Of course if it were all just slow-motion shots with a flimsy story than we wouldn’t be talking about A Better Tomorrow still today. Unlike many of Woo’s imitators who think it’s enough to have an actor flying across the screen with two-guns blazing, Woo does have the cinematic elements like characters, plot and his own pet-themes on his mind that give the stylish scenes the extra meat they need to last many views. Plot-wise, this film trumps Hard Boiled in my books. The films ganger-oriented story about honor and brotherhood between police offers and gangsters is a favourite theme of Woo’s, and he had been waiting for years to tell this type of story at this point in his career. It shows as it’s jam-packed with ideas with almost no wasted scenes. Everything is tightly woven and is delivered by some of the best actors Hong Kong has (including Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Chung who were showing up in all the best late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong films). Chow Yun-fat is especially enjoyable as he is given all the best lines in A Better Tomorrow. No wonder fans are still asking Woo to this day when they are working together next.
If the film has a sour note, I’d say it involves some earlier lighter scenes involving a music rehearsal. They seem out of place as they don’t make sense sequentially as comedic relief, nor are they particularly funny. You do get to see producer Tsui Hark as a music judge who gets his car’s rear-window smashed in however. On that note, Tsui Hark looks almost exactly the same now as he did 20 years ago too, does this guy ever age?
John Woo shows how he really feels about Tsui by smashing up his car.
The print at the Mayfair was excellent without a scratch or speckle. It was either brand new or from a private collector who takes very good care of their prints. It had English credits and only English subtitles which suggest it wasn’t a Hong Kong print, but it did include music that is not on my Anchor Bay DVD of the film. The main musical cue that I recall is the famous restaurant scene which you can see here. The YouTube video showcases the version I saw with it’s more quirky Cantonese music opposed to the saxophone and guitar music on the Anchor Bay release. I’ll take the original music over any soundtrack that involves a saxophone. Saxophone solos sound more dated than a synthesizer score to me. I haven’t seen the Region 2 UK disc of A Better Tomorrow, but from what reviews I’ve read, I find that it fares even worse than the Anchor Bay one.
I’m babbling like a fan boy here, but let’s just say that A Better Tomorrow could easily sneak into a list of the top crime films of the 1980s. If this print comes to your town, you owe yourself the pleasure to see this classic.