These days, the many themes and visual tricks of action maestro John Woo are incredibly well known as his frenetic, slow motion gunplay, religious iconography and copious doves are as familiar to the Woo-faithful as their own faces – but once upon a time, while he chipped his way through the ranks of the Hong Kong film industry, his famous tics hadn’t yet been gathered together. The first movie to truly start showing us what the auteur was capable of is the immensely depressing crime epic A Better Tommorow, a movie that plays like Dr. No to The Killer’s Goldfinger, which to those who don’t know their Bond references, means that while the style and panache of Woo’s later work was yet to surface, the groundwork for all those overly emotional gun battles was laid right here with possibly it’s most important brick of all. A brick forged of charisma known as Chow Yun Fat.
Ho is a pretty big wheel in the Triad organisation who manages a successful operation forging money and does business using the old ways, where honor and your word actually means something, even to criminals and flanking him in his endeavors is his best buddy, business partner and bodyguard Mark Lee who may in fact be one of the most flamboyantly cool humans striding across the face of the earth. However, times are changing and Ho is beginning to feel that his time may soon be at an end mostly because his beloved younger brother, Kit, has just finished high school and is prepping to join the police force, something that’ll no doubt create drama further down the line. As Kit is blissfully unaware that his brother is a major player in the criminal underworld, Ho’s sickly father pleads with him to give the life up for the good of all involved, but during Ho’s last job before retiring, he and Shing, a young man he’s mentoring are ambushed by a rival gang and in the chaos, Ho is forced to surrender to police and faces a stint in jail.
This sets off a chain reaction that encompasses all around him; while Mark attempts to get answers from the rival gang by shooting up everyone in a restaurant but gets two holes blown in his kneecap, Ho’s people send an enforcer to kidnap his father to ensure he doesn’t squeal but in a fight with Kit, the father is fatally stabbed and dies – something that Kit holds his brother accountable for.
Three years pass and Ho is released from prison to find things drastically different. Shing is now a major player in the Triads while a crippled Mark scrambles for scraps as he polishes their cars while being openly scorned, but worst of all is that Kit, now a police officer, is consumed by bitterness for his brother and is obsessed with trying to further his career by busting the men Ho once worked for. Torn between wanting to go straight for his brother and going back into the criminal life for his friend, sooner or later something’s going to snap – and when it does, the guns will come out…
While somewhat overshadowed by A Better Tomorrow II – a sequel that ups the gunplay and depression by at least 78.9% – John Woo’s first objectively identifiable “John Woo film” is a fascinating watch as it enthusiastically doubles down with creating a tragic tale that contains more weapons-grade melodramatic hysteria than a month of Mexican telenovelas. It’s not enough that Ho’s arrest indirectly causes the murder of his his father, but it also means that his brother won’t get promoted any higher in the police force because he’s a massive wrong-un, his best friend falls on majorly hard times and his protege goes from being a sniveling punk to a big cheese in criminal circles all in three years. Woo has always loved dragging his flawed heroes over metaphorical barbed wire as the agonize about where their morals should ultimately lie and anyone else trying the same trick would more than likely make the exaggerated angst feel inadvertently humorous, but if there’s one other thing the director is good at, it’s wringing big masculine tears out of its operatic morality play.
Of course, there’s an other, other thing that John Woo is good at and that’s giving Chow Yun Fat the space to be impossibly cool no matter whatever antics he’s currently up to. Sporting a mean oral fixation that either sees him puffing on cigarettes like a charismatic chimney or constantly chewing on a toothpick, Fat loads Mark up with not only a magazine full of personality quirks (that would probably be quite irritating in real life) but with the loyalty of a gun toting labrador who essentially steals the whole movie out from under everybody else as he blasts his way into the beginings of action movie legend. That’s not to say the actors do a bad job; Ti Lung infuses Ho with a world weary calm as he juggles the weight of his gargantuan conscience against the temptation to revert back into the criminal everyone always takes him for, but Leslie Chung’s Kit is too brattish to find endearing while Waise Lee’s villain is fairly weak and isn’t a patch on the similar role he went on to play in Woo’s devastating Bullet In The Head.
Of course, when we’re dealing with Woo, we have to bring up his talent at staging operatic action sequences that result in more spent bullet casings that your average South American coup and more sprayed blood than a vampire’s buffet. However, those expecting the truly staggering climax of A Better Tomorrow II might need to check expectations at the door, as the fan favorite director hasn’t quite reached the moment in his career yet where he can casually blow up a hospital (Hard Boiled) or give a church a 9mm makeover (The Killer); but the smaller scale set pieces we have here still work hard to get that blood pumping. An early shootout that sees Mark annihilate an entire gang after stashing guns around a restaurant in order to use them later comes straight from The Godfather and the climatic shootout comes with it’s fair share of thrills and tragedy, but there’s a noticable lack of suited thugs when compared to later works due to A Better Tomorrow’s rather small budget.
Still, these are mere minor quibbles in the face of watching a master of the genre confidently find his feet and greater things were still in store further down the line; but as an early example of the lord of cordite getting to finally express himself (not to mention the star making turn by his toothpick gnawing muse), you should experience A Better Tomorrow, today.