Woo and Fat (hmm, that sounds bad) return in another hard-gunning adventure. Hard-gunning Judge Nicholas Sylvain also returns to hand in his own brand of extreme justice.
Our review of A Better Tomorrow I + II, published May 10th, 2004, is also available.
They're back for another Woo-tactular film!
Take A Better Tomorrow, film some of it in New York City, throw in a car chase, set a couple of dozen nice sized explosions, up the body count by a hundred or so, and you've got A Better Tomorrow II. Sadly, still no substantial extra content.
Facts of the Case
Once again in prison, Ho Tse Sung (Lung Ti) is coerced into assisting the authorities investigate a new, massive counterfeiting operation when he learns his little brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung) is risking his own life as an undercover spy in the same organization. The authorities suspect struggling shipyard owner Si Lung (Dean Shek) is involved, but in truth he is subject of a power play by gangsters eager to take over his business in order to give their criminal enterprise a new base of operations.
Set up for a murder by these gangsters, Si Lung goes into hiding in New York City. Tragic events back home and an assassination attempt in New York City send him spinning into a crushing insanity of grief. Fortunately, an old friend, Ken (Chow Yun-Fat), now a restaurant owner in New York City, rescues him from an indifferent asylum. Ken must fight Lung to snap him out of his insanity as hard as he must fight off the waves of thugs who seek to destroy his restaurant, his friend and himself!
With New York City too hot to handle, Lung and Ken return to the source of their troubles, Hong Kong, and determine to confront their enemies. Joining forces with Ho and Kit, this ad-hoc vigilante group must avoid the wrath of the police as they track their enemies and create a devastating plan of attack. The final battle is a wonder to behold, as four men attack a veritable army with every weapon at their disposal, seeking to get a measure of justice for the wrongs done to them.
A Better Tomorrow II is a sequel that earns bonus points for not belaboring the story set up by the original film, but naturally it does so at the risk of thoroughly confusing people who didn't see A Better Tomorrow . Adding to the potential mystery is a plot that jumps between scenes or introduces people without explanation, leaving the audience scratching their collective heads. This is still a basic melodrama at heart, as was the original, but perhaps the swiss-cheesed plot is a function of the writer John Woo wanting to get a sequel out the door to capitalize on the success of the first film by director John Woo.
Fortunately, you don't tend to pop in a Woo film looking for intricate, meticulously constructed plot webs. What you want, and what you get in vast abundance, is signature style, bitterly fought action, and a body count that is astonishing for any film not involving massed armies. I can't decide whether Woo is a master at violent art, or artistic violence, for there were moments during the heat of combat where the splash or spray of blood is undeniably elegant. Certainly the way the camera and the editing move us around the many firefights gives the violence a balletic quality, a clear Woo style.
If for no other reason, I would make A Better Tomorrow II required viewing for the climactic battle scene beginning at Chapter 24. In awe I watched as a small group of men, armed with a cornucopia of guns, grenades and even samurai swords mowed down a literal army of thugs, mercenaries and assorted bad guys. This is one movie, outside of a mass-army war film like Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan, where the bodies get stacked up like cordwood!
The major actors of A Better Tomorrow II are nearly the same set as in the original film. The primary addition is Dean Shek as Ti Lung, the struggling shipyard owner who descends into the depths of insanity, only to find his way out again for revenge. He has a difficult role amidst all the bullets and blood, but comes out with an emotionally genuine performance, evoking our sympathies. The other actors and actresses carried over from A Better Tomorrow continue in fine form as before. Lung Ti, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun Fat, and their cabman friend (whose name I cannot determine) reprise their roles. Shooting and committing general mayhem upon their opponents while dealing with difficult emotions and relationships, they help make A Better Tomorrow II an enjoyable melodrama, a step above a pure action film.
The anamorphic video transfer is nearly, but not quite, on par with the original A Better Tomorrow. Sharpness has improved a bit, for the picture is never as blurry as in the original. Flesh tones are still good, black levels decent, film grain evident but not too distracting and digital artifacts blessedly absent. What does take the grade down a notch are occasional substantial film defects, not counting the sprinkling of blips and specks. The frame jumps, shakes and flickers as if the film were badly spliced together, but this annoying defect only happens two or three times during the film.
The audio track avoids the controversy that swirled around A Better Tomorrow, as we only have the original mono Cantonese track and the mono English dub. The music and sound effects suffer from typical mono limitations, with no low punch and a thin sound, but nothing unexpected. I am again amused at the substantive differences between the subtitles and the dub. I know translation is a difficult task, but is it this much of an inexact science?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As with the first movie, an original DVD release by Tai Tseng apparently had behind the scenes footage and additional footage as extra content. It would have been nice, particularly for those of us who have not had much exposure to John Woo's and Chow Yun Fat's early careers, to get a director/actor commentary, or something extra, aside from two trailers for A Better Tomorrow II (International and Hong Kong versions). Menus are animated, featuring good themed transitions and movie music.
It won't make as much sense if you haven't seen its predecessor, but don't let that stop you. Well choreographed battles, impressive cinematography, and the dynamic Woo/Yun-Fat duo let loose upon the screen once again create a tasty treat. The sound won't knock your socks off, nor will the extra content, but perhaps even more than the original, this is worth a rental for all you action fans who can handle subtitles or a dubbed film. If you are a Woo/Yun-Fat fan, this is definitely a purchase ($24.99 retail).
Nothing criminal about the movie in the least! Anchor Bay is guilty of misdemeanor disappointment for the lack of extra content, but I'll get over it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Theatrical Trailers
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