A Better Tomorrow 2 / Two - After the box-office topping success of A Better Tomorrow in 1986, there was little chance that producers would not cash-in on a sequel. Chow Yun Fat's circular rimmed shades and trench-coat image had become a new icon for a modern age of action heroes. Gone were the swords and drunken boxing, in came the twin pistols and plenty of doves. A Better Tomorrow 2 was filmed shortly after the original and was rushed into production to ensure maximum box-office impact. It reunited the majority of the cast from the first instalment (Chow Yun Fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Emily Chu), with John Woo once again at the director's helm.
Although not faring as well at the box office or at awards ceremonies, it still took a respectable HK $22.7m. Predictably, it trailed behind Jackie Chan's Armour of God, but more surprisingly behind Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire. However, it was enough to ensure a poor third instalment in 1989, directed by Tsui Hark.
Problem: How do you do a sequel after killing off the film's main character? Well, you can look across the world of cinema and TV for innovative ways of returning a character to life. In Terminator 2, they ensured the script had room for Arnie by making him a good clone of the bad Terminator in the original. In Dallas, after killing off Bobby in a car crash, they the decided to make a whole year of programming into an extended dream sequence to allow his return! For UK and Oz fans, we had Harold returning in Neighbours after several years dead at sea by surviving and getting amnesia. Well take a bow Tsui Hark and John Woo, Chow Yun Fat's return to A Better Tomorrow 2 is equally remarkable. Even though Mark was killed in the original, they never mentioned his identical twin brother. That's right, this sort of daytime soap plotting sounds more like Day of our Lives or Sunset Beach, than one of John Woo's most accomplished works!
As you can guess from my opening salvo, there is little here in terms of character development or plotting that really requires any mention. As ever, there is plenty of double-crossing, Ti Lung and his son Leslie Cheung both end up undercover on either side of the law and Dean Shek does a fantastic turn as a vegetable who rediscovers his killing touch. Oh and Chow Yun Fat's twin brother character is identical in every respect to Mark from the original.
I am not trying to dissuade viewers by going on about some of the dodgy elements in A Better Tomorrow 2, but it is important to remember what this film is; a swiftly contrived cash-in sequel. Having said that, this is a whole lotta fun! There are guns, explosions and cannon fodder that have probably only been eclipsed in John Woo's overblown Hard Boiled. Chow Yun Fat literally throttling Dean Shek out of his comatose state is powerful cinema, but the Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung story feels a bit jaded this time round as Ti Lung keeps trying to redeem himself whilst Leslie is always trying to take on the world alone!
There are two exceptional scenes that shape this movie, Chow Yun Fat and Dean Shek taking on the Russian gang in the motel is superb, but it is ultimately outclassed by the finale. Ti Lung, Dean Shek and Chow Yun Fat make one final stand, which harks back to the likes of the Peckinpah's Wild Bunch. It is bloody, excessive and violent, but I ask how else could you end such a movie? There are several 'seminal' moments in film captured in the last twenty minutes including the famous pistol swap and the three heroes sitting together after the shoot-out. But these moments need to be seen rather than read about.
One other moment of interest was when the Russian gang leave a briefcase bomb in Chow's New York Restaurant, only for a kid to chase after the man saying 'Mister, you forgot your briefcase', then Boom! This was several years before the scene was immortalised in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables (which also famously borrowed the staircase scene from Potemkin). In a rare moment of humility I must admit that I am not sure whether this John Woo scene was also grafted from a previous movie or whether it was an original concept. However, it is extremely effective.
A decent disc from Hong Kong Legends, but I was a disappointed. The picture is more grainy than most (a problem that affected the original as well). This is nowhere near as sharp as later releases such as The Killer and Hard Boiled, and it suffers in comparison to some Celestial Shaw Brothers titles of the mid-seventies. However, I would guess this is more to do with source print than any fault of Hong Kong Legends. The sound is decent with both dubbed and subbed versions available. Extras are interesting, with a Tsui Hark interview, an animated essay, a preview of the third instalment and trailers.
If you are prepared to forgive this film for tired and rushed story-telling there is a gripping action thread at its heart. Chow Yun Fat and Dean Shek ensure that A Better Tomorrow 2 remains a memorable story of despair and redemption but other parts of the film may feel jaded until the finale.
But what a finale Mr Woo, what a finale.