A Hero Never Dies (1998)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-11-18
“A Hero Never Dies” is a brilliantly flawed masterpiece. Absurdly over the top and hyper-stylized, it upends many conventions of the gangster movie by making the gangster style into one of the main subjects of the film. They are cool, therefore they are.

Martin and Jack are completely caught up in an existential nightmare. Each is the enforcer and top gun for his boss and both are forced to do battle with the other because the bosses are at war. As existential heroes all they can do is live as authentic and autonomous a life as they can while stuck in the reality created by a world they can influence but not fundamentally control or ore even change. They recognize the ultimate futility of their situation and accept the challenge to create new meanings in an otherwise senseless world while realizing the concrete certainty of their real lack of power. Johnny To uses many of the tropes, themes and images of the ultra-violent Hong Kong gangster movie but as soon as we become familiar and comfortable with them he changes the rules. The bosses served by the protagonists have none of the verve or energy of typical crime lords in movies like this. They act more like timid mid-level criminal bureaucrats lacking the accoutrements common to men of their station. Mr. Fong and Mr. Yam are very easy to dislike from their first appearance and become more so as the action progresses.

Each killer’s appearance and style are very different from the other. Lau Ching-Wan as Martin looks like a Thai cowboy with his ten gallon hat, leather pants, boots, ever present cigar and perfectly Brylcreemed pompadour. He runs very hot and is loud and flashy—he decks himself out in a white suit with a lavender shirt when not in his leathers. Leon Lai dresses simply in somber tones of conservative cut with only a necklace to set off his ensemble. He is quiet and cool—almost glacially so. While it might seem that pairing actors with such a disparity of screen presence and talent would be a problematic mismatch—Lau Ching-Wan can play any part imaginable while Leon Lai’s talents don’t seem to include impersonating characters onscreen--they make it work.

Johnny To’s use of Lai seemed like the way that a number of directors have used Al Pacino recently. Pacino’s recent work has been increasingly characterized by histrionic isolation—the other actors on the set may as well not be there. However in roles in which he is isolated or an outsider this estrangement from the other actors, a liability in more conventional movie dramas, makes sense. This tendency was well exploited in “Merchant of Venice” (Shylock), “Angels in America” and “Simone”. In much the same way Jack was the perfect part for Leon Lai. Jack’s preternatural calm, imperturbability, coolness under fire (including a memorable scene in which he retrieved the head of a comrade killed during a gun battle with Martin’s men while the laser sight of a sniper’s rifle was locked onto him) and general lack of emotion allowed Lai to create a character without acting.

There is an almost unbearably suspenseful sequence that takes place at a motel on a rain swept night. Jack and his crew stop there to better protect their boss and we know that it won’t be long before their rivals show up with guns blazing. Johnny To stretches the beginning of this scene to its breaking point—at first the audience is guessing only where the attack will come from but as the tension is heightened we wonder if it will happen at all. When Martin and his men do show up we are jolted even though when the scene began we knew how it had to end.

There is a scene in which Jack’s men shoot up Martin’s apartment, an indication both of how much each knows about the other and also the respect they share. It wouldn’t have been any more difficult for ambush Martin and shoot him but that would have violated the bond that was developing between them. Just as importantly it gave To a chance to refer to an iconic image used by John Woo. While they were shooting the air was full of feathers, many of them flying upward in violation of the laws of physics. On one hand it looked ridiculous—if every bit of furniture in Martin’s home was stuffed with feathers it still couldn’t have created such a storm—but more importantly it reminded on of the scenes of doves ascending in many of Woo’s violence drenched films.

There are some parallels in the action of the two men, much of which adds nothing to our knowledge of their characters—it is just there. One, however, is played for laughs and very funny. The first time through is during the opening sequences of the movie. Jack’s boss is consulting Mr. Fortune Teller, groveling and pleading with him while the aged medium berates him for not following his advice from a year ago and beats him with his cane. Jack, unimpressed by Thai magic, breaks things up by demanding that the fortune teller predict whether he will be shot that day—then shoots him in the foot. Later on Martin arrives and seeing the fortune teller with a heavily bandaged foot, limping and supported by his fey assistant, starts laughing. He cuts immediately to the chase, asks the fortune teller if he can foresee if he will be shot, then shoots him the other foot.

The real power in Thailand, however, lies with the general. He controls both bosses—the assumption is that he is the wholesale supplier for heroin that is either shipped through or sold in Hong Kong. When the general has decided that all the bloodshed has been bad for business and in doing so makes Martin and Jack immediately obsolete. If their bosses aren’t going to kill each other then there is no need for highly trained killers.

The last several minutes of the film belong to Lau Ching-Wan. His girlfriend (Fiona Leung, terrific in a smallish role) is brave, the bosses are venal and disgusting, Jack is loyal, but it is Martin who carries the day. Even though he is crippled and wheelchair bound the men who were formerly his crew are clearly afraid of him and the two bosses, now working together, go from self-congratulatory glee to complete stark panic when he arrives.

One interesting side note. The way that Jack’s girlfriend hides him from approaching assassins, which is wheeling him on a gurney from his hospital bed to the morgue in the basement and sticking him in one of the drawers used to store—an one assumes, keep cold—dead bodies awaiting autopsy could be the basis for a comedy/horror movie. And, if “A Hero Never Dies” was made in a slightly different era it probably would have.

Highly recommended
Reviewer Score: 9