In their primes, which was the only time they worked together, John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat were an explosive combination. Though they only did five films together, the maestro of violence and his charismatic leading man singularly defined Hong Kong action chic and established a legendary cinematic collaboration on par with the likes of Frank Capra and James Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant, or John Ford and John Wayne. When you think of one, you inevitably think of him in association with the other, and once they eventually parted ways their careers were both the lesser for it.
They may have each been working diligently in the industry beforehand, but it was A Better Tomorrow and its sequels that catapulted both to international superstardom. Now, courtesy of Fortune Star's A Better Tomorrow Trilogy box set, we can revisit what made their partnership so special. When, for instance, Chow walks onscreen in his long woolen coat, sunglasses on and unlit matchstick gritted between his teeth, a pistol in each hand blazing away, the movie instantly transcends its B-movie origins and becomes a thrilling pop phenomenon. It's an iconic image, courtesy of Woo, and at that moment Chow Yun-Fat is undeniably the coolest motherfucker on Planet Earth.
A Better Tomorrow from 1986 is still the defining example of the HK "Heroic Bloodshed" genre. The picture was designed as a sort of Chinese Scarface, in which Chow's character Mark start as a low-level hood rising through the gangland ranks via his money-laundering operation, only to be betrayed from within by his own partners. His best friend Ho tries to go the straight and narrow after a few years in prison, but the down-and-out Mark soon drags him back into the action for some bloody retribution. The plot is pure pulp and in any other movie the loud '80s fashion and colors would be too horribly dated to endure. There's even a direct rip-off of the famous Godfather restaurant scene that is pretty shameless. But in Woo's hands the film becomes a paean to the virtues of brotherhood and misguided honor. The movie features what can be described as no less than an orgy of violence, each gunshot and blood splatter fetishized in Woo's trademark slo-mo ballet of bullets and bodies. The gunfights are simply awesome, and Woo uses them to elevate the dramatics to operatic proportions. It's a remarkably delicate balancing act and an amazingly entertaining joyride.
As with anything so wildly successful, a sequel was inevitable. Under pressure from super-producer Tsui Hark, Woo cranked out A Better Tomorrow II in time for release the following year, 1987. Chow Yun-Fat also returns to star, and anyone who actually saw all of the first movie probably wondered how the hell that could be possible considering…. well, if you've seen it you know. The cop-out explanation is that Chow now plays Ken, identical twin to his previous character Mark. Yes, it's lame, but it had to be done. There could be no sequel without Chow Yun-Fat, and frankly any excuse to put him and Woo back together can be easily forgiven.
Once you get over this basic contrivance, though, some other disappointments set in. In order to make the lead more identifiable for the audience and friendlier for international distribution, Ken is a much softer, less devious character than Mark. He's basically just a good guy who gets reluctantly dragged into his brother's old life. The movie's action is more ambitious in scope than the last picture, spread out between Hong Kong and New York, but after a strong start the story gets sidetracked in a lengthy and frankly asinine subplot about one of the main characters having a nervous breakdown. Woo and Tsui Hark reportedly clashed over the direction the series should take, and this results in a wildly uneven picture. On the other hand, when it works it really works. The action is again spectacular, and by its latter half the plot finally settles down into a basic but functional revenge tale that is perfectly sufficient to build up enough momentum for the intense climax in which Ken, returning sidekick Ho, and Ho's little brother Kit (also returning from the first movie) lay siege to a mansion full of gangsters and turn it into a grisly abattoir of close-quarters machine gun fire. Part II is not nearly as good as part I on the whole, but it has more than enough highlights to make it a satisfying follow-up to the original.
By the time A Better Tomorrow III came around in 1989, John Woo had left the series and producer Tsui Hark (a prolific A-list director himself) took over the reigns. Chow is back as Mark again, which can only mean one thing; yes, the third entry is a prequel, showing us the origin of the character we met in the first film. Set entirely as a flashback to the Vietnam era, if part III has one fundamental problem it is that the movie has next to nothing to do with either of the first two pictures. Sure, the character shares the same name, and Tsui throws in a few token references to the sources of his famous coat, sunglasses, and dual-pistol shootout technique, but otherwise any connections are tenuous. Mark here acts nothing at all like the Mark of the first film; he's more of a good-natured fellow like Ken, whose existence by the way is never mentioned a single time. Nor is there any reference to vital characters Ho and Kit. There are other characters named Kit and Ho in this movie, completely unassociated with the originals (maybe that's meant as a joke, or maybe the filmmakers never even made the connection). It's as though the film began life as an unrelated Vietnam project that Tsui decided to shoehorn into his popular franchise.
The third movie is by far the weakest of the trilogy. Although Tsui has made more than his share of action movies and knows a thing or two about putting together an effective shootout, he's more concerned with setting up flashy "hero" shots of the actors posed with their guns firing that look good on posters and in movie trailers. The violence here is much less bloody and intense than what Woo had established for the series. Tsui tries to make the plot into a larger-than-life love triangle between Mark, friend Mun (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), and mutual girlfriend Kit (the late Anita Mui), but only achieves mixed results. His attempts at social commentary also come across ham-fisted, and the big climax goes too far over the top with its ridiculously staged action and heroics. Tsui wants the movie to be an epic, but it almost turns into a parody. There are a handful of good moments in the film, and if it were released as an independent picture without trying to be a Better Tomorrow sequel it might be OK, but the storyline is just too inconsistent to be considered a legitimate prequel to the other movies, and it comes out as a big disappointment.
What is not disappointing is the totality of the A Better Tomorrow Trilogy as a single package. Despite their ups and downs, the movies are great and easily repeatable entertainment.
Fortune Star's box set contains all three movies in their original Cantonese language and full-length cuts as seen in Hong Kong theaters (Part III had a longer cut for Japanese audiences, but that is not reproduced here). The discs are encoded in the NTSC video format without region coding and will function in any American DVD player.
Although "Digitally Remastered" (as we are informed by the packaging), A Better Tomorrow still looks low-budget and old. The 1.85:1 anamorphically-enhanced picture is bright and crisp in its clearest outdoor daylight scenes, but many others look noisy, dull, and grainy. Often the quality of scenes will vary from shot to shot, some seeming fine and others dupey. Colors appear to have been cleaned up and are fairly vibrant, but the image has some minor edge enhancement and frequent problems with noise reduction and compression artifacts. To be honest, I'm not all that familiar with the movie's history on DVD, and it is very possible that this is the best it has ever looked on home video, but expectations should take into consideration its age and the fact that most Hong Kong films were not well-preserved by their distributors.
The sequels look progressively a little bit better, but both suffer most of the same inherent weaknesses.
As they have been doing with many of their catalog titles, Fortune Star has remastered the original mono soundtracks into both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround. Purists will find this controversial, as the studio has done more than just redirect some sound effects to different speakers. Many of the original canned sound effects have been replaced with newly recorded versions, bass has been substantially beefed up, and the entire sound mixes have been made as highly directional as any modern action movie.
The Cantonese dialogue was primarily recorded through ADR originally, and here retains most of its constrained and nasally character. It also has some minor sync issues. Nobody cares about that, though; it's the action scenes that matter. To that end, many of the gunshots have nice kick (though some are still weak), and the directional effects are for the most part tastefully applied; they also matrix just fine into a center rear channel if you have DD-EX or DTS-ES processing enabled. The DTS tracks are preferable for their edge in fidelity and breadth, and are tremendously fun during the big gunfights. This may not be the way the movies were originally heard in theaters, but it's true to the intentions of the movies and in many respects an improvement.
Of the three, the final film actually sounds the worst, because the disc producers must have believed that it needed the least work. It has some fun directional effects, but sounds hollow and dull overall, and the front soundstage appears to be mostly mono.
The original Cantonese monaural soundtracks are also preserved in Dolby 2.0 mono. They actually aren't too bad themselves, but are much duller and less fun than the 5.1 remixes. There will be a section of the audience who insist that this is the only proper way to watch the films, and I respect that opinion, but I bet that even the filmmakers would admit that the 5.1 mixes are truer to what they always wanted the movies to be.
A Mandarin dub is also available in Dolby Digital 5.1, but no English dub (no big loss there). English subtitles have been provided, along with both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. The English translation is mediocre at best, with many flagrant spelling and grammatical errors. The subtitles start out as reasonably intelligible on the first film, but the translator must have gotten bored because by the last act of the movie the words only make the barest semblance of coherent sense. It's a good thing the movie is mostly action by that point; an English-speaking viewer will struggle to interpret most of what is being said by the context of the characters' actions. A command like "Get down!" is likely to come out as something like "You floor go!" The subtitles on A Better Tomorrow II are generally better, though we do still get the occasional line like, "Nobody dare not give me face." Either there aren't as many problems on the third film or I'd just gotten used to it by that point.
All three discs offer your choice of English or Chinese menus. Each movie includes the original as well as some awfully generic newly-edited trailers. Also available on every disc are photo galleries that can be viewed either as still images or part of an automated slide show.
More substantial is the Code of Bullets featurette, which is divided into three segments, one for each movie. Each part runs between five and ten minutes in Cantonese audio with optional English subtitles. The program is an utterly silly but entertaining attempt to explain the "science" of action movies in terms of how what we watch in them could be related to real life. Part 1 is basically a handgun primer, showing us all the weapons that the movie characters favor, and explaining the strategy of the double-fisted shootout. Part 2 is like a flashy episode of CSI focusing on the plausibility of a person surviving multiple gunshot wounds or dodging an explosion (according to the piece, both are no problem at all). There's also a swell demonstration of where to shoot a human body for maximum stopping power effectiveness. Part 3 gives us a crash course in close-quarters combat and quick shooting techniques. It also tells us how to hold a gun and how to blow up a tank
Finally, A Better Tomorrow III includes five deleted scenes in anamorphic widescreen and with optional English subtitles. All are very short, and none are of any particular importance.
No ROM supplements have been provided.
The films in the A Better Tomorrow Trilogy are undisputed landmarks of Hong Kong action cinema. Fortune Star's box set has classy packaging and makes a valiant attempt at presenting the movies in their best light. Some problems remain, especially in the subtitle translations, but overall it's still a nice package and worth owning. The strengths outweigh the weaknesses, and the set is recommended despite its shortcomings.
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A Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy
Infernal Affairs Trilogy
John Woo Collection
Once a Thief
Once Upon a Time in China I, II, III
Police Story Trilogy
Project A Series
Sammo Hung Action Collection