REVIEW: DVD Release: A Better Tomorrow

Film: A Better Tomorrow
Release date: 30th April 2007
Certificate: 18
Running time: 90 mins
Director: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Emily Chu
Genre: Action/Crime/Thriller
Studio: Optimum
Format: DVD
Country: Hong Kong

Perhaps the most influential director the action genre will ever see, John Woo honed his craft at the legendary Shaw Brothers studio before joining with producer Tsui Hark and finding his true calling in the crime genre. Woo’s signature style, consisting of balletic action sequences alongside themes of religion, family and, of course, doves, is established with A Better Tomorrow.

Ho and best friend Mark run counterfeit money for the Triads; they live a life of luxury and ease. At the same time, Ho’s little brother Kit climbs the ranks of the Hong Kong police force.

Ho and Triad initiate Shing are sent to Taiwan to close a deal. While at the meeting they are ambushed by police and narrowly escape with their lives, although Ho is later arrested and sentenced to prison.
Ho’s father is attacked and killed by an assassin, and in his dying breath he pleads with Kit to forgive his criminal brother. Kit is furious at his brother, who he blames for their father’s death. Meanwhile, consumed by anger at Ho’s imprisonment, Mark takes revenge on those responsible, but is crippled in the process.

All of this has been orchestrated by Shing, who quickly rises to power in the Honk Kong organisation. Ho is released from prison and quickly finds Shing in charge and Mark reduced to cleaning duties at a Triad owned taxi firm. Driven by jealousy and hatred for Ho, Kit and Mark, Shing makes plans to have them all killed…

A Better Tomorrow is a rare treat, a chance to watch a maverick auteur crafting his own signature. Some may believe that artistic intentions are wasted on the action genre, not John Woo, who can make the bloodiest battle a thing of majestic beauty. Cutting his teeth at Shaw Brothers with traditional swords and chivalry epics, Woo soon teamed up with legendary producer Tsui Hark and gave birth to the ‘heroic bloodshed’ sub-genre. Characterised by honourable career criminals and world weary cops blasting chunks out of each other in slow motion, these films remain the most influential series in the action genre, responsible for, among other things, The Matrix, which functions as a love letter to heroic bloodshed cinema (and is highly influential in its own right).

For his first action film, Woo crafts an effortlessly cool crime fable about brotherhood and redemption. ABT establishes many of the themes Woo would revisit throughout his career; religion, family, honourable friendship and the economic state of modern China all feature heavily in the film. His distinctive style is at its most prototypical here, the slow motion sequences, juxtaposition montages and freeze frames are all here. Most of these stylistic ticks are borrowed from the nouvelle vague and the early work of the American Zoetrope crowd, but Woo uses them to craft a succinct form out of the chaotic tenets of the action genre.

Many of the cast of A Better Tomorrow would return for future Woo films, and the principal cast is uniformly strong throughout. Leslie Cheung excels as the headstrong Kit, whose duty to the law is not always conducive to his shaky relationship with his brother. Ti Lung is strong in the central role, offering a great early representation of the symbolic Woo hero. Best of all, though, in a role that made him the go to guy for action heroes, and a by-word for Eastern cool in the west, is Chow Yun-fat. In a brilliantly typical Woo action sequence, we see Yun-fat’s Mark striding down a restaurant corridor, girl on each arm, planting guns in plant pots so as to avoid the hassle of reloading. Later, Mark stalks down the same corridor and, dual wield 9mm pistols, massacres a room full of goons. Long black trench coat, toothpick, charisma, this is the moment when Yun-fat embodies an archetype.

The Matrix, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, True Romance, Desperado, in fact, any film with a standoff, a dove, some slow motion or a black suited criminal owes a great debt to a signature style that was established with this film. John Woo has made better films, and he has made films that are much, much worse, but he will never come close to making the impact he did with this, his first slice of heroic bloodshed. KT


  1. If Woo has made better films how can this get five stars?

    I'd rather read a critique about the film in question than future achievements.

  2. Great film AND great review - not sure why the previous comment berates you for not critiquing the film in question (as far as I can see there's only one line about his future achievements - and it seemed a pretty relevant comment to make)