A Better Tomorrow
is the John Woo gangster classic that started it all, a romantic, violent, swirlingly stylish melodrama about dueling brothers--with a mesmerizing lead performance by Hong Kong's favorite actor, Chow Yun-Fat. In repose, Chow's sleepy magnetism recalls the glory days of Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen, and Takakura Ken; when he's stepping high, Chow has a unique, ebullient star presence, a man who embraces life so unselfconsciously that he becomes vulnerable to all kinds of suffering and heartache (he endures masochistic megadoses of violence here). The sequence in which Chow's Mark avenges his betrayed best friend---by blasting his way into, and then out of, a Chinese restaurant, twin .45s blazing---is a swashbuckling standout. Woo's film technique may have been more polished in later efforts, but Tomorrow has a direct emotional power that is still unique. Kung fu star of the 1970s, Ti Lung is also terrific here as the 40ish established mobster, relied upon by all, who allows conflicting loyalties toward Mark and toward his younger brother, now a cop, to undermine the stability of his position.
"I won't give you nothing, man; I give you shit," sneers charismatic superstar Chow Yun Fat, speaking English (with a De Niro accent) in his role as a New York restaurateur who won't knuckle under to the (Italian) mob in A Better Tomorrow II. Chow plays the twin brother of the character he played in the original, and the blatancy of that device is a fair indication of the sequel's shortcomings--and of its screwy charm: this is a film that knows no shame. The bond between the natural siblings played by Ti Lung (as a reformed mobster) and Leslie Cheung (as a hot shot cop) still resonate tellingly. As a good-guy ex-thug driven batty by the slaying of his only daughter, real-life Cinema City studio chief Dean Shek gets to play a garishly extended "mad scene," foaming at the mouth, chewing on soup bones. A later episode in which a dying man crawls to a phone booth to call his wife (and newborn daughter) in the hospital must also be some kind of lurid first in the soap sweepstakes. The final 15 minutes could be the bloodiest single shoot-out sequence ever committed to celluloid. The story line hasn't been shaped to any particular purpose here, but the images have a golden Godfather-like glow, and this faintly anachronistic, all-stops-out wish-fulfillment approach to moviemaking still has a lot of power. --David Chute