A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-07-31
Summary: Both old and new
The themes which run through martial arts movies include betrayal/redemption, the triumphant return of the outcast and victory over impossible odds through equally impossible effort. Heroes and villains in martial arts movies continue to fight after being kicked, punched, clubbed, slashed and speared. Men bond with each other because of their devotion to martial arts and the school they have chosen—and they can also become deadly enemies for the same reason.

In “A Better Tomorrow” John Woo updates, comments upon and subverts many of these conventions while keeping their structure intact. He replaces the years of training in kung fu with years of devotion to criminal enterprises. The martial arts schools and the masters that run them are now triads and gang bosses. The hero isn’t punched or kicked, he is shot. Many of the wounds would be fatal, some instantaneously so, but he lives to fight (shoot) another day. The heroes are sold out by treacherous associates and forced to struggle outside their former life to return to it and seek revenge.

Woo fetishizes firearms and gun violence—so does, for example, Sam Peckinpaugh. Peckingpaugh does so while turning an American iconic genre, the western, on its head in. Woo gives the Hong Kong action film a good spin. Peckingpaugh had a boatload of all but over the hill action stars in “The Wild Bunch”, while Woo was satisfied with Ti Lung. Peckinpaugh’s men were doomed—history had passed them by, they were no longer relevant. They went out in a blaze of glorified gore, heroic in the sense that they stood their ground even when faced with certain death. The heroic violence in ABT was a bit different—Mark, Ho and company are united because of the shared brotherhood of the outlaw—not only outside of the law as most people know it, but betrayed and cast out of the hoodlum domain as well.

ABT made stars of Chow Yun Fat and John Woo, so much so that Mark Gor’s trademark shades, long trench coat, toothpick and insouciant air added up to a new icon for action heroes. One critic wrote that it seemed that Mark Gor could sneer his enemies to death.

John Woo moved the cinematic world. Chow Yun Fat was his fulcrum.
Reviewer Score: 9