There are few things as satisfying as watching characters go ape on screen with giant guns and blasting everything with a pulse within ten square miles. The action genre has been revered for ages, ever since the audience was shown the glory, and sometimes gory horror, of the shoot out. There is a certain allure to protagonists blowing away everything in sight, much like a hockey masked serial killer hacking up impure, misbehaving teenagers. And while the absolute madness of gunfire has had a warm place in the hearts of film lovers for years, it was a director named John Woo that really cranked up the voltage in 1986 with A Better Tomorrow.
Ho (Ti Lung) wants nothing more than to clean his slate. The gangster life has taken its toll and he is ready to step down for good. And it is a good thing too, because his brother Kit (Cheung Leslie) is well on his way to becoming a policeman. Ho could not be happier to get out of the fray and not tassel his brother's hair, but when a routine job goes wrong he is forced to make a difficult decision that lands him in prison for three years. Now being set free, Ho wants to reconcile with his brother. However, all is not so easy, for his gang ties are difficult to break. Especially with his washed up friend Mark (Chow Yun Fat) is pushing Ho every little bit he can to get the two back into business.
If you are an action fan and the name John Woo has somehow never crossed your path then there's a lot you must see. Some call Woo the Martin Scorsese of Asia. While his career in America is less prolific than Scorsese’s, films like Face/Off or Mission: Impossible II are notable mentions. However, Woo's Chinese career from 1986 to 1992 is the mark of more legendary films. A Better Tomorrow is the first piece in Woo's molding of the action film. Today much of the film may seem old hat, even grossly dated with the seemingly endless clips and characters sometimes brushing off bullet wounds like they were mosquito bites. But this is where the action genre really took off for the modern generation of films.
A Better Tomorrow brought in a harder dramatic narrative that many would not expect to find in an action film. The fight becomes more than just Ho trying to break away from his old gang life but also trying to win his way back into his old family life. However, a vicious game of tug-of-war is also played as Ho goes back and forth between trying to be good, winning his way back into his brother's life, and constant gang harassment to get involved again. Add in the new troubles with his old friend Mark, and Ho's life just continues to spiral out of control. It manages to meld drama into the characters on a far more personal level than viewers are used to.
Still, what people will remember most, and probably the number one reason they watch these films, is the highly stylized action sequences. Choreography in Woo's films begins with A Better Tomorrow. In here character practically dance as they blast away baddies in dazzling fashion as blood bursts from the bodies like water balloons. It's over the top, highly entertaining, and mercilessly mesmerizing.
Though characters are given great drama here and actually manage to make people care about whether or not they are killed or not, the story still remains predicable on most levels. Anyone who has seen a few modern action films will likely see some of the twists coming from a few miles off. However, the characterization here is exceptional, and Lung breathes amazing air into his role, bringing out tragic and empathetic elements. And yet the viewer can still understand why anyone would act begrudgingly towards him. Characters like Kit and Mark carry less drama but still feel necessary to the fate of Ho.
When you hear someone say 'they don't make 'em like that anymore,' A Better Tomorrow is the kind of film they are talking about. In an era where special effects are still expensive but more easily accomplished, and seemingly impossible stunts are created with green screens and 3-D, A Better Tomorrow may seem alien and outdated. However, when one understands the technology of the time and realizes the amount of work and perfection that was required to pull off some of these scenes, one realizes that the format they are viewing is a breakneck work; something most will not find in many films nowadays. A Better Tomorrow showcased the bright future of the action film to come and Woo as a visionary action artist. A Better Tomorrow is a dazzling piece of cinematic history that stands far above most of the action giants audiences are familiar with.