Weekend Retrospective - Brothers in Arms

A BETTER TOMORROW (1986)

'Do you believe in god?'
'Yes. I am God. God is human.'


Aka True Colours of a Hero. John Woo's breakout feature and his first foray into the 'heroic bloodshed' genre of action is a pretty low key affair in comparison to his later, more explosive films. In fact A Better Tomorrow 2 is a complete and utter monster next to the original, with a gigantic body count, explosions that set actors on fire, and a verbal tirade about a plate of rice. It's an overloaded action spectacle, a movie that is dripping with melodrama and contains several ridiculous plot twists. Which of course ... I do have time for.

But while his other films have been discussed here in the past, it's time to go right back the start. While it's not the first of it's kind, it's not hard to see the influences here just by looking at the career changes it would propel. Notable not only for it's mix of triad thriller elements and martial arts meets gunplay action that would define a genre, it created a new hero in the guise of Chow Yun-Fat, a television actor known for his work in romantic comedies. It's been said that the studio actually fought against his casting, which is kind of crazy what you look at what followed.

But there's a lot of great stuff here considering this was a first attempt, and it would ultimately pave the way for more classic crime and action movies. It actually appeared in an unpredictable explosion of new ideas, being released just months after both Police Story and Yes Madam hit screens at the end of 1985.


As a pure action feature, A Better Tomorrow is rather subdued when looking at the scale and spectacle of John Woo's later, more famous releases. Which isn't to say this is lacking in terms of pyrotechnics and bullet squibs, with Chow Yun-Fat's revenge on a restaurant full of gangsters early on revealing the level of style (and violence) that would soon become a standard hallmark. But there's no overblown hospital or mansion showdown here. Those airborne doves from The Killer (which seem to be short hand for action in any of these films) never appear. But there's just enough fireworks throughout to make it visceral and engaging. The focus is more on character, and the recurring themes of loyalty, brotherhood and honour among thieves are all present and correct.

In fact this remains the most human action flick in Woo's body of work. The plot is pretty straightforward. It's a tale of brothers on opposite paths -- one is a triad boss and the other is a rising star in the HKPD -- and pretty soon both collide. The cast is full of charisma and does a good job of making this central drama effective without it becoming too sentimental or forced. Ti Lung plays elder brother Tse-Ho, the wiser and more patient one who has taken the darker course in life. Leslie Cheung on the other hand is the stubborn younger sibling Tse-Kit who frequently loses his cool and has no time for his closest relative after discovering his brother's true nature. 


After an underground deal goes wrong, we jump forward three years in time to find the characters facing new problems. They must resolve their differences after the divides have grown and new adversaries appear. Of course for some bloodshed is the only answer. Chow Yun-Fat is along for the ride as Mark, the best friend of Tse-Ho and in a way a brother from his other family. His cool factor is a far cry from the slicked hair and stylish costumes in The Killer, and while the ultra stylish opening shows him at the top in that unbeatable sunglasses and trench coat combo, events soon conspire to bring him down a peg or two.

And he has a long way to fall, facing humiliation and demotion in the criminal heirarchy and spending most of the film in a leg brace and with a number of facial injuries. You really feel for the guy, and in the finale when he takes on the henchman of double crossing sleaze-bag Shing (Waise Lee) it's a cathartic moment. The score throughout compliments the highs and lows Mark goes through. Joseph Koo's mix of electronic guitar and synthesizer music is very much of the period but remains memorable, and it fits with the vocal work of star Leslie Cheung which balances it by providing an emotional touch to several key scenes.

As a prototype of things to come they pretty much hit the ground running -- directorial trademarks were earned and action stars were made. The producer Tsui Hark would eventually grow tired of all the shoot outs and take an official third instalment in new and rather disappointing directions. After part two John Woo would instead direct Bullet in the Head with Tony Leung; which is not in the same league as his other greats, but still holds up as tale of tested friendships in times of war. The rest of course is history and Chow Yun-Fat escaped the soap opera, taking the mantle of God of Gamblers and Hot Handed God of Cops amongst many other leading roles in movies with absurd titles. For anyone looking to see how it all started, this is the place to begin.

4/5