John Woo's 17th film proved to be one of the most influential in Hong Kong cinema, and was a springboard to cult superstardom for both the director and his leading man Chow Yun-Fat. While the pair would better it considerably with their subsequent collaborations — A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard-Boiled — it spawned an entire sub-genre of action thriller, commonly known as 'heroic bloodshed', that would prove endearingly popular in Hong Kong throughout the late 80s and 90s.
Viewed 16 years on, A Better Tomorrow has aged pretty well, although its mix of hard-hitting gun violence and soapy melodrama does sometimes prove a little jarring. But to be fair, most of its faults are those of its decade (in particular a grating synth score) and Woo's desire to put characters ahead of gunplay is what sets him apart from most of his peers.
Although his presence looms large over the whole film, Yun-Fat does in fact take third billing. He plays Mark, a suave, honourable gangster whose best pal, Ho (Ti Lung) is thinking of giving up the criminal life on account of his younger brother Kit's (Leslie Cheung) decision to enter the police force. Ho doesn't want to compromise his brother's position, but this is exactly what happens; their father is killed as a direct result of Ho's shady associations, Ho ends up in prison, Mark is crippled, and Kit is constantly refused the promotions he knows he deserved. Once out, Ho reteams with Mark and sets about righting some wrongs and patching things up with the increasingly unstable Kit.
The scene for which this film is best known — Mark strides into a restaurant and opens fire on its Triad customers — is still an electrifying sequence, and one that proved the blueprint for Woo's subsequent career. The squibs, the slow-motion, the dual-gun technique, super-fuckin'-cool-Chow Yun-Fat... it's all there, in two blistering minutes. The other action scenes do seem a little ordinary by comparison, but they are well placed and never gratuitous. In fact, considering the carnage that Woo would later unleash in, say, The Killer, A Better Tomorrow seems distinctly sedate.
The relationship between Ho and Kit is believable and nicely acted by Lung and Cheung; it's a shame the same can't be said for Kit and his girlfriend (Emily Chu), who is only there to look disapproving at all these men and their macho pursuits. There are no great surprises here, but it's a slick enough thriller and the beginning of a golden age for Hong Kong action.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.