A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-11-26
John Woo and Tsui Hark must have known within hours after the final credits rolled on the premiere of "A Better Tomorrow" that they had a problem. As problems go it was a god one, a hit movie that captured the imagination of young men in Hong Kong and throughout the Chinese diaspora. But in a film culture and business that honored sequels they had made a huge error. Mark Gor, the coolest and most charismatic hero to come from the studios of Hong Kong in years lay dead on the beach, killed in a final riot of heroic bloodshed. But he was not only dead, drilled through with what might have been hundreds of bullets, but had died a flamboyant, righteous gangster death. There was no way out. If he had miraculously walked away from the burning wreckage of an airplane or had been the only survivor washed up on shore after the boat went down he wouldn’t have been Mark Gor but just another lucky gangster who cheated death in order to die in a gutter some time later.

Everyone was around for the next chapter. Ti Lung was as phlegmatic and deadly as ever; Leslie Cheung was gorgeous and idealistically conflicted; Emily Chu was beautiful and long suffering as a person could be. But lacking Chow Yun-Fat in his topcoat and dark glasses, chewing on a matchstick and firing a pistol from each hand there was no movie. What to do?

In a postmodern nod to their iconic character Woo and Hark had art follow life by creating a mini-museum of all things Mark Gor complete with a cartoonist/curator who not only captured the legend on storyboards but solved everything when he showed a picture of the Mark and his twin--his identical in every possible way twin, now running a restaurant in New York City. He doesn’t seem to mourn his brother--the only way he even acknowledges him is not allowing Asian American kids to come into the restaurant in Mark Gor gear. A bit more garrulous than the taciturn Mark, Ken Lee is also a man of action who humiliates and shoots it out with hoodlums from the Mafia while always staying loyal to his friends.

The ten minutes in the middle of the movie that was largely Dean Shek being restrained in a mental institution and having food shoved into his mouth followed by Hark at home with Ken Lee who also tried to get him to eat could have been left out although those scenes were less offensively stupid the second or third viewing. Lung's recovery made him an implacable killing machine in a dark suit, the perfect addition to Ken and Sung.

What is lacking in this movie is the agonizing tension of the "A Better Tomorrow". In the first film we saw the old "honorable" Triad ways fracture under the hammer blows of huge amounts of easy money. It was no longer necessary to be a good soldier and work one's way up in the organization to prosper--any thug with a gun and the willingness to sell out his comrades to other gangsters or to the police could prosper. The old ways, of course, would only be mourned by criminals.

There are a few embarrassing lacunae or continuity problems or issues of just plain sloppiness which keep "A Better Tomorrow 2" from the highest rung of cinematic excellence. One of the most obvious is when Kit shows up at the home he shares with his wife--his pregnant wife who has been suspicious due to overheard conversations he has had with a girl named Peggy. So he decides to hide Peggy at his home but doesn't explain anything to his wife, simply introduces them--"this is my wife; this is my girlfriend". Emily Chu playing his wife just stands there looking stricken while Regina Kent runs into a bedroom crying. A strange, unexplained and probably unexplainable scene that didn't lead anywhere.

The real calling card is the insanely over the top, Grand Guignol final battle in which the three heroes kill a battalion of bad guys. It is ridiculous--about fifty men died just from being in the same room with Chun Yow-Fat and all they had to do was point their weapons to have a roomful (a large room at that) of villains fall dead. Their main weapons were pistols and hand grenades, real close quarters weapons, and all three of our guys wielded them with deadly aplomb.