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review added: 1/4/01



A Better Tomorrow I & II

reviews by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits


A Better Tomorrow

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

A Better Tomorrow
1986 (2000) - Anchor Bay

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/C+

Specs and Features:

94 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, theatrical trailer (in Cantonese & English), talent files, animated film-themed menus with sound effects and music, scene access (29 chapters), languages: Cantonese (DD 5.1 & 2.0 mono), English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English




A Better Tomorrow 2

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

A Better Tomorrow II
1987 (2000) - Anchor Bay

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/C+

Specs and Features:

104 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, Hong Kong theatrical trailer, International theatrical trailer, talent files, animated film-themed menus with sound effects and music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: Cantonese and English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English

American moviegoers have been dazzled by the efforts of director John Woo in recent years. His first big U.S. blockbuster (let's just forget the Van Damaged Hard Target), Broken Arrow, was pure testosterone with almost symphony-like choreographed violence. He made dying an art, and we kept coming back for more. He would follow up these efforts with similar action spectacles in Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2. But before Woo was the darling of every American explosion-loving man's cinematic fantasies, he was a widely acclaimed filmmaker over in Hong Kong, giving filmdom two masterpieces of balletic ballistic violence: The Killer and Hard-Boiled. They showed that chaos was good, but making chaos - pure chaos - seem effortless was even better.

Now American audiences can get a little fix of even earlier Woo with the help of Anchor Bay's DVD releases of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II. These two films feature Chow Yun-Fat in his first big Hong Kong role(s), which broke his string of theatrical flops and made him one of the most popular actors in Hong Kong cinema. The films are pretty formulaic of Woo - neither of these "blazing gangster flicks" are going to stand up among the greats of his career. But they definitely stand tall for fans of the genre and style. Plus, they're our first peek at a world crawling with gangsters in black suits and dark sunglasses, mimicked to this day by aspiring filmmakers everywhere.

A Better Tomorrow

"If you don't stop pointing that gun, you'll have to use it."

The story goes a little something like this. We have Ho, the center of our story, who is a lieutenant in a big time Triad counterfeiting ring. His partner and best friend is Mark (played by Chow Yun-Fat), and his brother is Kit. The only problem with Kit is that he happens to be a police officer, so at the behest of the ill father, Ho agrees to forego his life of crime for the benefit of the unknowing brother. But when his last job goes kablooey (thanks to a well-timed double-cross), the ill father ends up down for the count and Ho ends up in jail. When he gets out three years later, his brother hates him, his buddy Mark is on a bum leg and begging, and that damned Triad just won't let him get on with his life. Solution? This is a Woo film, so everyone soon gets the guns out and starts shooting everybody in sight. But, hey - there is a little male bonding in between.

Seem campy? It is, and it definitely could've traded in some of the soap opera for more copious violence. But, then again, maybe we Americans are just trained for a different type of action film. What we've got is good, with Yun-Fat posting a solid performance, but not nearly as good as the real star, Ti Lung. The pacing is, surprisingly, a bit slow at times, with just a little less action than I would've expected. When we reach the climactic battle, however, we get explosions and boom booms galore. So if you're a John Woo fan, you'll be quite happy. If you're a Hong Kong film fan, you've probably already seen this flick. If you're a converted Woo fan, only familiar with his American flicks, you may be itching for some firepower here and there. Still, A Better Tomorrow is a solid little film all around, and don't let me short-change the level of awesome gun-play.

Too bad it couldn't have been polished just a bit more for the DVD release. Don't get me wrong - it looks pretty good, and it's heaps better than the previous Tai Seng release. And you've got to give Anchor Bay credit for releasing this in anamorphic widescreen. But there's a definite softness to the print and grain runs wild. Considering the film is 15-years-old, and isn't exactly a Hollywood epic (meaning Hong Kong films have always been problem children on DVD), a super-pristine look is not to be expected. I do think that the color timing could have been improved more for this DVD release. It's not terribly distracting and, as I said, the film looks damn good compared to previous incarnations. But I'm a reviewer and I got the gig because I point these things out.

The audio is a more complicated issue. First, if you're a purist, prepare to rejoice - the original Chinese 5.1 language track is here (and if you don't speak Cantonese, you can use the subtitle option). But if you do that, you can forget about the oomph when guns go off and explosive chemicals get too close to a spark. It's as if all the bass was sucked from the marrow of this track. It isn't horrible, but the levels between dialogue, sound effects and explosions are disappointing. So what do we do? We turn on the English 2.0 mono track... and suddenly the guns sound like we expect them to sound, the explosions pack a little more wallop and we all feel better... oh yeah, except for the fact that we must listen to an English dub. Sigh.

Extras don't really exist here, although Anchor Bay's gone to the trouble of providing a trailer in both English and Cantonese (with or without subtitles). That was nice of them, but that's about all we get. Double sigh.

Okay... so at the end of the day, this is still a pretty good DVD. Aside from the audio quibbles and lack of extras, we're getting to see some classic Woo, just at the point in his career where he was formulating his style. And the film looks better than it ever has before at home. But I've always been a proponent of the idea that all DVDs should look better than they ever have before, so I'm not going to start heaping praise on a disc for simply qualifying in the race. Bottom line? If you're a John Woo fan or a Hong Kong action fan, this is a must-have for your collection. I also recommend that everybody else (those of you who may have found a liking for Woo based on his American work) pick this up just broaden your horizons a bit. It's a good little film, and any self-respecting action-fanatic should own it.

A Better Tomorrow II

"We're dying. Can we go now?"

So in 1986, John Woo made A Better Tomorrow... and surprise of all surprises, it became a major Hong Kong money-maker, inspired legions of kids to dress and act like Chow Yun-Fat's character Mark and redefined the Hong Kong action genre. So there just had to be a sequel, right? Enter A Better Tomorrow II, released one year later, ill conceived and quite obviously rushed out. That's not to say that this is a bad film - in fact, in some parts its better than the original. But it could've been a solid film ALL AROUND, had they only taken their damned time.

The plot, as convoluted as it is, goes arguably like this - Ho is in jail after the first movie and his little brother is still an accomplished police detective. But when little brother Kit goes undercover against Ho's old mentor, Ho accepts a deal to get out of prison and go undercover himself. It turns out that Ho's old mentor, Uncle Lung, isn't the guilty party at all, and after being essentially ousted and having his daughter murdered, he ends up hiding out in New York and going insane. But who in New York is he staying with? None other than Ken, the identical twin brother of Chow Yun-Fat's character from the first movie. Some pretty murky plot development later, we've got the foursome together back in Hong Kong and ready to fight the bad guys, who are now counterfeiting money or some such thing. Bad things happen, all involving abundant quantities of guns and explosions, and we enter a climactic battle in a mansion filled with (literally) a couple hundred henchmen. Does all this sound hard to follow and little poorly constructed? Bingo - you have just gotten this movie!

Now... I won't be a sourpuss and give away critical information about the ending of the first film. But if you've seen it, you'll understand how contrived it is for Chow Yun-Fat to be in this film. That complaint having been officially registered, it's really awesome to see him again here. His character is easily more fleshed out than in the first film and he has some great dialogue and action sequences. What makes this film flounder is the rough-around-the-edges, thrown-together-so-we-could-make-more-money plot. It never makes enough sense. Still, ignore all of that and you'll love the distinct bullet ballet of John Woo. Add to that the fact that the last fifteen minutes are nearly the coolest in any action film ever, and you're set.

The video on this disc barely bests that of the first film. Once again, it's presented in a surprising anamorphic widescreen. The grain that ran rampant on that disc is much less apparent, but not totally absent. The color balance is better and the image is overall much crisper. It still shows its age, but on the important fronts, it's fine. A few notes to consider - around the 1:34:00 mark, we start seeing evident source defects in the print, with lines popping up and throwing the film off. It happens a couple of times and it's jarring. Another note is the shoddy effect of having blood flying off of henchmen and onto the film lens. Once you realize what the hell that red haze is, you'll feel better. But it's a bit unsettling if you're not used to it.

The sound, however, fares only as good or worse than the DVD for A Better Tomorrow. The oomph-factor is much higher, so the bullets and booms come across nicely on both the English and Chinese 2.0 mono tracks. That's the plus. The English track, however, boasts some shoddy voice acting (what's new?) and some downright hard to hear dialogue. That's the minus (just stick to the subtitles, I beg you). In the end, it's an average piece of audio that could've been much better... but wasn't. If you're a purist, you won't care. But if you hate listening to Chinese or reading subtitles, you're screwed.

The extras here mirror the first disc. There's an international trailer for us English-speaking folks. There's the Hong Kong trailer for those who actually speak Chinese (and you'd better, because subtitles were not offered for the trailers this time out). That sound you hear is me sighing again.

Oh! Almost forgot... A Better Tomorrow II has one of the funniest lines in an action film ever. Check the quote at the beginning of the review, because it's worth at least renting for that alone.

So let's recap. Plot? Hard to follow and pretty much an afterthought. Sound? A mixed bag. Video? Rough around the edges. Action sequences? These are John Woo films, man! They're super sweet and blow away most Hollywood fare. That should make it pretty easy to determine if you really want to own these DVDs. If you like Woo or action films in general, you have to at least give them both a look. These are two films that forged the style of all the action films that followed them, so they're important library titles to have if you're a fan of the genre. They're not the best films by Woo and they're not the best discs out on DVD... but they'll do.

Brad Pilcher
bradpilcher@thedigitalbits.com


A Better Tomorrow


A Better Tomorrow II


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