After the smash box office success of A Better Tomorrow (1986) in its native country of Hong Kong and other Asian territories, the film’s producer Tsui Hark convinced its director John Woo to quickly crank out a sequel imaginatively titled A Better Tomorrow II (1987). The two men had a contentious relationship during production and this spilled over during the editing phase where they argued over the length of the film. It got so bad that a mediator had to step in, allowing Hark and Woo to each edit a half of the film. The end result is a flawed yet fascinating mess of a film that divided Woo fans but helped popularize what became known as the Heroic bloodshed movie, a genre of Hong Kong cinema distinctive for its overtly stylized action sequences often involving excessive gunplay and melodramatic themes consisting of brotherhood, honor, duty, and ultimately redemption.
A few years have passed since the events depicted in A Better Tomorrow. Sung Tse Ho (Ti Lung) is recruited from prison to infiltrate and bust an international counterfeiting operation in Hong Kong. His target is Lung Si (Dean Shek), his former mentor. He’s asked to go undercover and investigate Lung but Ho refuses out of loyalty and the belief that his friend has retired from the business. So, his younger brother Sung Tse Kit (Leslie Cheung), now a police lieutenant, takes the job instead. He manages to impress Lung by helping his daughter in a dance contest.
When Kit’s wife Jackie (Emily Chu) visits Ho in prison upset and worried about her husband’s “secret mission,” he reconsiders the deal offered him. Ho is quickly reunited with Lung and finds out his mentor really has gone straight despite crippling debts and pressure from rival mob boss Mr. Wong (Ng Man-tat) to buy Lung’s shipyard. However, at a meeting with Mr. Wong, Lung is framed for the crime boss’ murder and so Ho puts his mentor on a boat to New York City. However, Lung’s beautiful young daughter is killed on orders from crime boss Ko Ying Pui (Shan Kwan), which, coupled with seeing the kindly priest that took him in and a little girl get killed by assassins, drives him off the deep end. Just how much more trauma can this guy take?
Before he’s about to be given electroshock therapy at a mental institution Lung is sprung by Ken “Gor” Lee (Chow Yun-fat), the twin brother of Mark who was killed in A Better Tomorrow. It takes approximately 20 minutes before we’re introduced to Ken in a ridiculously drawn out scene where he rants about a plate of rice that a customer doesn’t like. It is a shameless bit of overacting even by Hong Kong cinema standards and I suppose is intended to show that Ken is just as wild and unpredictable as his brother. However, the scene goes on and on into self-parody and one has to give Chow Yun-fat credit for fully committing – or something like that. The overacting continues as Ken tries to get Lung out of his catatonic state. Of course, just as Ken makes a breakthrough they are attacked by assassins. Only in a Woo film would a bloody shoot-out snap a character out of his catatonia. Having survived yet another attack, Ken and Lung go back home to Hong Kong, team up with Ho and Kit and exact unholy vengeance on Ko and his army of crooks in what proves to be one incredible action set piece after another.
In keeping with the tradition of Heroic bloodshed movies, A Better Tomorrow II is essentially a soap opera for guys, albeit a bullet-ridden one. It features incredibly heightened emotions (see the rice scene) as the main characters constantly make life or death decisions. Their lives are continually in danger, which creates an intense bond – the hallmark of many Woo films, especially his Hong Kong ones. Around the one-hour mark the slow motion mayhem really kicks into gear as the Chow Yun-fat action hero we all know and love manifests itself when a gang of bad guys tries to kill Ken and Lung at a flophouse they’re hiding out in. Among the beautifully orchestrated carnage we get a breathtaking shot of Ken sliding down a flight of stairs while dispatching an anonymous baddie with two guns – an iconic image that perhaps best encapsulates what the Heroic bloodshed genre is all about. This stunt was also a warm-up for a similar one that would be pulled off in Hard Boiled (1992), Woo’s Hong Kong swan song.
The rice rant aside, Chow Yun-fat demonstrates why he was such a super star in Hong Kong. He gives off an air of effortless cool as the unstoppable action hero and Woo’s cinematic alter ego. He has loads of charisma and the camera really picks up on it in a big way. Ti Lung is also quite good as the conflicted ex-con that risks his life by going undercover to protect his brother. Leslie Cheung plays the tragic cop with everything to lose. His character has a pregnant wife yet constantly risks his life in order to take down Ko. Finally, Dean Shek is excellent as the father figure of the group and shows considerable chops as Lung goes from honest businessman to catatonic victim to ruthless avenger.
After the financial success of A Better Tomorrow, the film’s producer Tsui Hark wanted to capitalize on it by quickly making a sequel. Originally, the film’s director John Woo agreed but only if it was a prequel set in Vietnam. To him, it didn’t make sense to make a sequel because Mark, A Better Tomorrow’s most popular character was dead. Woo came up with a story that depicted how the main characters in the first film became friends and got to where they were in life. This was ultimately rejected and he later used it in one of his most personal films Bullet in the Head (1990).
One of Woo’s good friends, actor Dean Shek was going through a rough patch in his career. He was no long popular with audiences and had gone to the United States with the intention of retiring. So, Hark and Woo met with Shek in America and convinced him to come back and make another film with them. This inspired Hark to come up with an idea for a sequel with Shek’s character Lung being coaxed back into action by his friends. Hark also came up with the idea of Mark’s twin brother Ken living in New York City. Woo wasn’t thrilled with these ideas because it ended any notion of his prequel idea but he wanted to help out Shek.
Problems arose during production when Woo came up with the idea of shifting the focus of the film to the two younger brothers – Ken and Kit – because he felt that they had a lot in common. The director shot several scenes with them working and talking together. However, when the film’s original cut ran almost three hours, Hark felt that the film was too long and that the focus should be on Lung. He wanted all of these additional scenes removed. Woo refused to make these cuts and so Hark secretly made edits only for Woo to then put the footage back in afterwards. A mediator stepped in and gave Hark and Woo one week to each edit a half of the film. The end result is a version of the film that neither men were happy with, especially Woo who considers it his least favorite of anything he’s done (Really? Has he seen Paycheck?).
Like many Woo films, A Better Tomorrow II examines themes of honor and loyalty. Ho goes to great extremes in protecting his mentor and his brother Kit as well. These guys are willing to face insurmountable odds and die for each other all in the name of friendship. But it is more than just friendship. When you’ve come so close to death as these guys have there is an unbreakable bond that connects them in a way that clearly fascinates Woo as he has explored it so many times in his films.
Sure, he lays the angst and melodrama on thick but in doing so raises the stakes in the action sequences. This was a pretty novel notion at the time. It makes the climactic showdown – where Ken, Lung and Ho are decked out in black suits (anticipating Reservoir Dogs by a few years) – that much more memorable because these guys have sacrificed so much that they’re due for some well-deserved payback and man, do they ever dish it out by staging a full-on assault on Ko’s compound with automatic weapons, grenades and, in one memorable bit, a samurai sword. But it is Woo’s trademark dual handgun action that is used the most and to greatest effect. A Better Tomorrow II takes the first film and ups the ante with more bloodshed and more melodrama for an installment that some prefer over the original. For a film that had such a troubled production, it is surprisingly coherent and in terms of its action sequences a classic of the genre. Woo would improve greatly on this template with The Killer (1989) and the aforementioned Hard Boiled before trying his luck in Hollywood with mixed results.