Those who have seen the original A Better Tomorrow would surely concur that that although it contained many of John Woo’s signature themes, it hadn’t quite allowed the legendary action director to level up into the maestro of muzzle-flash mayhem that sent such classics as The Killer and Hard Boiled whizzing our way at the speed of a screaming projectile. Even though the movie brought up such familiar subjects as feuding brothers on either side of the law, lifelong friends willing to absorb copious amounts of lead for one another and criminals who have a sense of honor comparable to the King Arthur’s Knights Of The Round Table, it was missing that certain something that made Woo’s later works such dizzyingly inventive affairs.
However, merely one year later, Woo gave us A Better Tomorrow 2, a sequel that not only delivered the requisite melodrama but finally showed the world what the director could do with a heavily armed bunch of guys in suits and a few hundred thousand rounds of ammunition.
Years after the events of the first movie, honorable criminal Sung is still languishing in jail but has a chance of early release if he agrees to spy on his former mentor Lung who the police suspect is the head of a substantial counterfeiting ring. However, due to his aforementioned honorable tendencies, Sung initially refuses, but soon changes his mind when he discovers that his estranged, over achieving younger brother Kit is already working undercover despite his pregnant wife is on the verge of dropping their kid any day now. Kit is in pretty deep, though, having inadvertently started a relationship with Lung’s beloved daughter, but with both brothers working together, it seems that the case will be closed fairly quickly.
Oops, not so fast guys, it seems that even though the brothers are finally on the same page, a coup by Lung’s underlings sees the boss framed for murder but after he manages to flee the country to America, the shooting of the friend giving him shelter and the murder of his daughter back home sees him suffer a major psychotic break and end up in a mental institution.
All cheery stuff to be sure, but salvation seems to be at hand in the form of Ken, the long lost twin brother of Sung’s dead best friend Mark who owns a restaurant in NY and manages to break Lung out and try and nurse him out of his catatonic state. Soon Sung, Ken, Lung and Kit have all reconvened in Hong Kong and have all vowed to bring down Lung’s former empire, but after a tragic death of their number steps up their time table, the survivors aim to stamp out the bad guys with enough ordnance to conquer a small, South American island.
If A Better Tomorrow was arguably the true start of Woo’s career as we know it, then A Better Tomorrow II is him fully realising his vision as never before thanks to a final, barnstorming ten minutes that takes established action tropes and turns them into a glorious, perfect storm of bullets, blood and brotherhood that ruthlessly tugs on the heart strings as it spikes you’re blood stream with nitrous. We’ll get to that legendary, final shootout soon enough, but the reason it works so well is that Woo dedicates the entire movie to setting up the circumstances to such a ridiculous, emotionally overblown degree that the almost rabid desire of the good guys to see their enemies dead is utterly believable no matter how outlandish it gets. Thus, what we get is arguably the most thrilling depressing slice of populist entertainment since Rocky II as we have to endure our heroes endure all manner of melodramatic tragedies in order to get then to a place where they can pull on some black suits and reduce a mansion to dust with their sheer force of will and a shit-load of Berettas. In comparison to the previous film, Ti Lung’s Sung gets off relatively easy as the shift of the movie’s focus shifts off his relationship with his brother a tad to centre fully on more of an ensemble – however, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to withstand devastating body blows as (SPOILER WARNING) his over eager cop sibling finally bites off more than he can chew and finally takes a bullet somewhere vital. Kit’s final scenes where he talks to his wife and just born son on a pay phone before dying immediately after naming him may be the second cruelest thing Woo has ever committed to film (the first obviously being The Killer’s stunningly vicious denouement), but even this is a fucking cake walk compared to the laundry list of weapons-grade misery that Dean Shek’s fallen crime boss Lung has to endure. Not only is the poor sod framed for a murder in a roomful of witnesses and he has to flee the country, but when his daughter and friend are cut down in two separate assassinations, he completely loses the plot and is committed to a New York asylum where their style of force feeding uncooperative patients is to beat the shit out of them.
Over the top? Sure. But the movie has to justify the insanely epic final conflagration somehow and we get a slight reprieve from Woo’s merciless hammering thanks to the return of Chow Yun Fat as his own twin brother who somehow acts exactly the same. In any other movie, this story wrinkle would play as cheap as secondhand toilet paper, but its always a joy to see Fat get to fuck around with weird character tics (sucking the flame of a lighter into his mouth, for some reason) and fire guns into walls of enemies with Woo and the actor manages to give it enough gravity to play beyond the cut-rate, soap opera, plot twist it obviously is.
But for all of its sweeping, brutal story beats that leave our heroes with nothing in their lives but to erase the (admittedly forgettable) bad guys, the true jewel in A Better Tomorrow II’s crown is that dizzying final massacre where pistols, uzis, grenades, shotguns, a samurai sword and a fucking battle axe are all employed as Woo has untold stuntmen wired up with explosives and has them spray blood as the die magnificently for our pleasure. Ok, yes, the gun fights in The Killer and Hard Boiled are better and more expansive, but watching Woo finally get his trademark vision of heroic bloodshed on screen is an unbeatable feeling that actually gets you emotionally invested in the utter chaos that’s unfolding right before your very eyes.
The final shot, that sees the blood soaked an very possibly dying heroes slumped in chairs surrounded by the bodies of around ninety men as astounded police swarm in may possibly be the finest ending of Woo’s career – which is ironic considering it was only a portent of things to come.
Beloved by the Hollywood elite (Taratino adores it) and an impressive expansion of it’s more modest predecessor, A Better Tomorrow II arguably makes you earn the thrills by overdosing on the spills a bit too much, but as a powerful explosion of what exactly Hong Kong cinema can truly do, this is one movie that will have you screaming “WOO” at the screen for more than one reason.