Anchor Bay // 1986 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // February 21st, 2001
Brothers by blood. Enemies by chance. Killers by nature.
The original John Woo film that paved the way to Hollywood and inspired many, A Better Tomorrow stands up well against its action-movie colleagues with its cool style, aesthetic violence and its genuine emotional substance. The technical presentation from Anchor Bay is a mixed bag, but they do get credit for fixing an error in the initial disc release.
Ho Tse Sung (Lung Ti) is a top member of a criminal syndicate in Hong Kong, very much on the opposite side of the law from his younger brother, Kit Sung (Leslie Cheung), a local policeman. When a deal goes awry and Ho must face a prison term, he tries to "go straight" on his release. As you might expect, it is not as simple as all that.
Not only does Kit blame Ho for the death of their invalid father, but Kit comes under great pressure from his superiors for having "links" to organized crime. Making matters worse, Ho is coerced by his former associates to rejoin their profitable criminal enterprises and harassed by the police, who assume he will resume his criminal ways. Ho's best friend, Mark (Chow Yun Fat), who was his right-hand man in the syndicate, has fallen on hard times during Ho's prison term. The two friends look to each other to survive, even as Ho tries desperately to reconcile with Kit.
The story thus heads for a climactic final battle, where two men fight for their lives against powerful forces, each seeking their destruction, and a brother decides whether to hold on to the only family he has left.
I was very happy to find a review copy of A Better Tomorrow in my mailbox (along with its soon-to-be reviewed sequel A Better Tomorrow II). I had heard about these early John Woo films (which also helped to boost the star of action hero Chow Yun Fat), but never had the opportunity to see for myself the films that influenced many American directors (including Quentin Tarantino).
Now that I have had the chance to watch A Better Tomorrow several times, I can best describe this film as an unpolished diamond. With a fairly small cast and modest scale, A Better Tomorrow has a surprisingly intimate feel for a bloody action movie. This feeling is further enhanced by Woo's emphasis on close quarters combat, making the firefights short, sharp, and nasty. Paradoxically, this is also where A Better Tomorrow is found wanting, for a slam-bang action film needs a wider scale of action to draw the audience into the maelstrom of mayhem and provide the most bang for the buck. I found A Better Tomorrow entertaining but not as exciting as I had hoped.
However, the style and presentation of the film are sound. John Woo (Hard-Boiled, Face/Off, Mission Impossible 2) knows how to use the camera and the editing room to effectively create a simple and crisply entertaining action film, and all this on a presumably limited budget. If you saw A Better Tomorrow and thought what would happen if Woo had more resources to spend on polishing the special effects, a broader cast, a seductively exciting soundfield and the like, it is easy to understand why Hollywood has thrown big budget money his way.
Though not well known to most American audiences, even after a few Hollywood films, Chow Yun Fat (Hard-Boiled, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is the center of attention in A Better Tomorrow. A tribute to his underappreciated acting talent, I found him so relaxed and jovial here in comparison with other film appearances. On the other hand, perhaps he feels more comfortable in the familiar environment of Hong Kong filmmaking? In any event, his character's identifiable style, with long black duster, jaunty toothpick, and two gun fighting mode, creates an audience-pleasing cinematic icon on par with Hollywood's best.
The two other central actors, Lung Ti and Leslie Cheung, playing the estranged brothers, cement the emotional core of A Better Tomorrow. Their relationship feels genuine, complex and terribly messy, as in real life. Audiences outside of Asia have rarely seen both men, but our loss is their gain.
The anamorphic video, though not reference material in any sense, is acceptable for a fifteen-year-old non-Hollywood film. Sharpness varies from scene to scene, usually middle of the road but here and there dipping dangerously close to being downright blurry. Flesh tones are okay and digital artifacting is wholly absent. Film grain and modest film defects (notably some white dots in beginning about Chapter 16) are visible, but I was surprised at the relative cleanliness of the print. Some restoration of the defects and this could have been an impressive transfer.
The audio on the originally released disc caused a firestorm of controversy. As I understand the situation, the source material provided to Anchor Bay included a 5.1 Cantonese language track that was not used with the theatrical release. Specifically, this variant remix uses music not present in the original track. Perhaps more of a concern to the average home theater audience, the sonic aspects of this 5.1 remix are rather lacking. From the start of the film, I was struck by the harsh, unpleasant qualities that are most noticeable in the music. It's not much of a 5.1 mix, either, with a narrow soundstage, no perceptible rear surround effects, and a generally anemic low-range.
However, Anchor Bay deserves credit for recognizing the problem and recalling the originally pressed discs, substituting the original Cantonese mono track for the variant 5.1 remix. I did find odd that on this early review copy the box lists only the 5.1 remix and the English dub, but not the (Cantonese) Dolby Surround track.
Given the problems with the 5.1 Cantonese track, I decided to give the alternate Dolby Surround Cantonese track and the mono English dub track. The Dolby Surround track appears to have a slight qualitative edge in the breadth of the front soundstage and in the lower ranges, but it's not a decisive difference to me. Given the limitations of any mono track, the English dub is actually pretty good in all respects, including clear (though dubiously translated) dialogue. Funny how the subtitle people and the dub creators differ in their interpretations!
Extras are nearly absent, with the exception of two theatrical trailers for A Better Tomorrow (one Cantonese, one English) and bio/filmographies for John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. The menus are animated, with nice transitions and movie music.
In scanning through the comments and reviews of other critics, I am reminded of one other flaw. Granted, this is very much a "guy" film, but even so, women are completely marginalized in A Better Tomorrow. With the exception of Jackie (Emily Chu), Kit's air-headed girlfriend who would fit right in as the giggly-actress-du-jour on the Iron Chef cooking show, there are no other female roles. A pity. Where's Michelle Yeoh when you need her?
A seminal John Woo film, A Better Tomorrow is at a minimum a must-rent for fans of stylish, violent action films who don't mind subtitles or dubbed dialogue. If you are a particular disciple of John Woo or Chow Yun Fat's work, then this film must be in your collection. Whether this incarnation of A Better Tomorrow on DVD ($24.99 retail) should be on your shelf versus the previous Tai Seng DVD release (which apparently includes greater extra content), I cannot say.
Acquitted of course.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Cantonese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Cantonese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailers