Judge Daryl Loomis may not always agree with his brother, but rarely wants to see him in a shootout.
Brothers. Enemies. Killers.
I must admit to being fooled. I saw a listing for A Better Tomorrow on Blu-ray and thought that it was something I'd really like to review. It's one of John Woo's bona fide classics and a film that is imminently rewatchable, so I jumped at the chance to have a look at a hi-def edition without doing a bit of research into what I requested. Then, I received it in the mail, only to realize that this was not what I thought it was. Indeed, this version of A Better Tomorrow is a Korean remake of Woo's film, produced by Woo himself, but certainly not the thing I was interested in watching. But here we are and the result is a little bit of a surprise. It's really not that bad and, honestly, the worst thing about it is that it is saddled with the remake baggage.
Facts of the Case
Despite having grown up in a very close relationship, North Korean brothers Kim Hyeok (Jin-mo Ju, The Warrior) and Kim Cheol (Kang-woo Kim, Le Grand Chef) come at odds when Hyeok leaves the north for better prospects in the south. Years later, Hyeok is an up-and-coming cop, while Cheol is an arms smuggler with his fingers in all kinds of bad business. With years of building animosity toward Hyeok for the abandonment of his family, vengeance and honor clash, but brotherhood is the strongest bond of all.
Looking at this Korean remake of A Better Tomorrow next to the original, it plain doesn't measure up. The story, the acting, the direction, none of it is as good as John Woo's 1986 classic and it's really not all that close. How could it be? The original is one of the seminal action films to come out of Hong Kong and its stars in Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung are two of the finest actors the genre has to offer. The real shame here, however, isn't that the remake is disappointing; it's that the remake is actually so far removed from the original that they barely resemble each other. Under a different title, with everything else exactly the same, I might have felt like it was inspired by A Better Tomorrow. I probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit more, as a result. The direct comparisons are inevitable, though, and the producers, including John Woo, who served as an executive producer and endorsed the film, have to live with the fact that those comparisons are unfavorable.
Taken on its own, this version of A Better Tomorrow is a wholly decent action film. Director Song Hae-sung (Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinary) and the writing team keep the concept and the overall structure of the original the same, but aside from that and a few images (including the centerpiece shootout that's awesome in any language), there are a ton of changes in the particulars. The alterations are significant enough that the plotting is somewhat confusing at times, but I suspect that has as much to do with having at least four different sets of hands involved in the writing as anything. The switch from counterfeiting to the arms trade is sensible enough and moving the location from China to North and South Korea is smart because of its country of origin, naturally, but also because it rings the conflict that the two nations have faced for decades, adding a little weight to the story. Hae-sung's slick direction is reminiscent of Woo's, but different enough that he makes the film his own. Ju Jin-mo and Kim Kang-woo both hold their own as the brothers, though they don't have the charm or charisma of their original counterparts. Song Seung-heon, playing the part that Chow Yun-Fat made iconic, is also pretty good, but the original performance was so perfect that there's nothing that can touch (though, if you're wondering, the big sunglasses are still in play). In every way, if you're looking for something as interesting and exciting as the original, you won't find it here, but that doesn't make this remake of A Better Tomorrow a bad film at all.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo package of A Better Tomorrow arrives on a single disc from Well Go USA. It is no surprise to write this, but if you have access to a Blu-ray player, the high definition version is definitely the one to watch. The image looks very good in hi-def, with excellent clarity and detail. The film features many different styles of lighting, and the transfer holds up very well in each case. The darkest scenes are as crisp as you can expect with near-perfect black levels and solid image depth. The standard definition transfer, on the other hand, is merely serviceable. There aren't a ton of transfer errors and the image is pretty clean, but the level of detail isn't nearly up to the level of the Blu-ray. The sound fares similarly, with a very strong Master Audio surround mix that performs very well in all channels. Dialog is consistently clear, the music sounds rich and full, and the all important gun fire comes through sharply. The Dolby surround mix is a moderate downgrade in all respects and, again, if the Blu-ray version is available to you, it's certainly the way to go. The small slate of extras is nothing special. It begins with a making-of featurette that doesn't do a whole lot, but it has some info if you're curious. Aside from that and a trailer, a series of interviews that total about ten minutes are all there is.
The makers of A Better Tomorrow have nobody to blame but themselves for forcing negative comparisons to the original film. Few action films can hold a candle to Woo's film in the first place, let alone making audiences think about it directly while watching. On its own, the new version is a competent film and, at times, a whole lot of fun. I can recommend the film, but I'd bet viewers will have a better time with it if they pretend that it's actually called Brothers at Odds, or something lame like that.
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Studio: Well Go USA
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