Following the genre-defining Hong Kong heroic bloodshed smash that was A Better Tomorrow (1986) proved no easy task for action auteur John Woo and ace producer Tsui Hark, especially since the finale left its iconic hero in no shape to star in a sequel. Of course, no enterprising Hong Kong filmmaker would let that stop them, so meet Ken (Chow Yun-Fat, of course!), Mark's identical twin brother! In fact, the twin gambit plays less absurd than it sounds and part two both expands Woo's original themes and, naturally, ups the ante on the action.
Now back behind bars, good-hearted gangster Ho (Ti Lung) learns his policeman kid brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) has gone undercover in order to expose triad boss Lung Sei (Dean Shek) as the brains behind a counterfeit ring. Kit’s feigned romancing of Lung's daughter Peggy (Regina Kent) is upsetting his pregnant wife Jackie (Emily Chu), so Ho joins him undercover to keep him safe from harm. It transpires that, just like Ho in the original movie, Lung wants to go straight but is being set-up by his turncoat ally, crimelord Gou Ying Pui (Guan Shan) who frames him for murder and kills his beloved daughter. A sympathetic Ho smuggles Lung to America where traumatic assassination attempts drive him to an insane asylum, which is where he is discovered by Ken and the fun really starts.
John Woo's up-and-down Hollywood career had the lamentable side-effect of leading many vocal Hong Kong film fans to reassess his once unassailable early classics. It has since become fashionable to maintain Woo only ever had one good film in him, the original A Better Tomorrow, and all that followed were merely overblown parodies of its psychologically solid themes. Which as any fan of The Killer (1989), A Bullet in the Head (1990), Once a Thief (1991) and Hard Boiled (1992) can tell you, is utter nonsense. Whereas the first film was actually a remake of the acclaimed Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967), with part two Woo crafted his own storyline - one that truly established his unique juxtaposition of manic, hyper-stylized gunplay, poetic characters and impassioned, intensely personal themes. Far from the mindless bullet-fest it is often dismissed as, A Better Tomorrow II weaves a complex and compelling story paying close attention to character nuance and layered symbolism. Note the use of something as seemingly innocuous as an orange as an emblem of brotherhood, a shooting star as a harbinger of death, plus Woo's repeated use of dance, music and other aspects of culture as a gentle contrast to the brutality of the triad world. It is no coincidence that heroes like Kit and Ken are as smooth with their moves as they are handy with their guns.
All the familiar thematic motifs are present and accounted for, only cranked up to eleven: chivalric gangsters who value honour and decency above material success ("Walk in with your head held high. Leave with your head held high", says Lung), Christian ideals set against criminal amorality (Lung finds refuge at a church run by an old colleague-turned-priest (Wang Zheng-Fang) and bonds with a little girl who reminds him of his daughter, both of whom fall victim to senseless violence), and the reoccuring question of true heroism is all about - as ultimately defined by the unflappably intrepid Chow Yun-Fat. Cast as an even more legendary, swaggering tough guy than his twin brother, Ken runs a restaurant in New York city where he keeps young punks on the straight and narrow and puts gwailo gangsters in their place. His infamous "You don't like my rice?" confrontation with one mafioso (Louis Roth) deserves to be as quoted as the "Funny, how?" scene in Goodfellas (1990). Whereas Chow's breakout turn in the first film caught many people by surprise, here Woo evidently set out to give the public what they wanted and then some. Namely, to see Chow wield an arsenal of automatic weapons to wipe out legions of triad scum-bags. "You must learn to act with panache", Ken tells Kit at one point, which is something he certainly does sliding backwards down a flight of stairs, blasting away with twin hand-cannons.
Tsui Hark was equally intent on crafting this film as showcase for the dramatic talents of his friend Dean Shek. Shek was better known as a comedian and had been around since the late Sixties at Shaw Brothers appearing in musicals, comedies and martial arts films. In the Eighties he co-founded Cinema City with fellow comedian Karl Maka and producer Raymond Wong and produced some of the most important and influential movies of the era, including several of John Woo and Tsui Hark's breakthrough films. At the time, Shek had fallen out with his producing partners and relocated to America until Hark lured him back to Hong Kong with this gem of a part. As the tragic Lung, he proves every bit as compelling as Shaw Brothers legend Ti Lung and the much-missed Cantopop idol turned movie icon Leslie Cheung, and shares a cracking scene with Chow as they walk a symbolic path down a corridor fraught with danger. Elsewhere, A Better Tomorrow II includes arguably two of the most emotionally shattering scenes Woo ever filmed. (Spoiler warning!) Firstly, when Ho is forced to put a bullet in his beloved brother to prove his fealty to the odious Gou Ying Pui. Secondly, the moment Kit expires listening to the cries of his newborn baby over the phone.
Of course it is all building up to the moment Chow dons his iconic ensemble: toothpick, shades and bullet-ridden trenchcoat and joins his sharp-suited buddies for an apocalyptic assault on Gou Ying Pui's mansion. Ti Lung breaks out his old Shaw Brothers kung fu and sword skills for extra carnage in what is simply one of the most spectacular and outrageous action set-pieces ever staged, including some neat nods to Scarface (1983), Taxi Driver (1976), and Woo's old mentor Chang Cheh. While the series probably should have ended on this high note, Tsui Hark took the reins for the interestingly offbeat A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989) before Wong Jing mounted the crass and exploitative Return To A Better Tomorrow (1994). And of course there was the sacreligious Korean remake of A Better Tomorrow (2010) but that's a whole other story.
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.