The Emergence of John Woo’s Muse in A Better Tomorrow (1986)

When you try to conjure a single image of what visually distinguishes John Woo as a director, there are plenty of choices in iconography: doves, slow-motion, speedboats, operatic gun violence, explosions, etc. There’s only one actor who can claim to serve as a visual calling card for Woo’s decades-long career, however: Chow Yun-Fat. To date, the actor and the director have collaborated on five feature films (and one video game), far more than any other repeating player in Woo’s career. The most iconic of these collaborations, of course, is our current Movie of the Month, Hard Boiled, wherein Chow Yun-Fat portrays a tough-as-nails cop who plays jazz clarinet & raps to babies (between hyperviolent gunfights). Their first collaboration together, however, was just as significant to their respective careers, as it was both the director’s and the actor’s first exposure to wide, international attention. Produced by Hong Kong action legend Tsui Hark, John Woo’s 1986 feature A Better Tomorrow was his first film to earn a significant critical & commercial breakthrough. With a miniscule budget and almost no advertising, the film broke Hong Kong box office records and went on to even greater international success, planting the seeds of the “heroic bloodshed”/“gun fu” genre Woo inspired. Even though he was cast as second-bill in the film, Chow Yun-Fat’s charisma was a major factor in that success. By the time A Better Tomorrow reached international distribution, it was his face that dominated the advertising, not the film’s lead. John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat arrived on the international stage as a unit, which helps explain why they remained frequent collaborators in the years leading up to their shared creative pinnacle in Hard Boiled.

A Better Tomorrow is the Mean Streets to Hard Boiled’s GoodFellas. It’s a cheaper, rougher-around-the-edges dry run for an aesthetic Woo would later polish & perfect, but there’s a distinct D.I.Y. punk energy to that cheapness that makes it an exciting watch. All the speed boats, slow-motion takes, explosions, and operatic gun violence that would come to define Woo’s career are present here (minus maybe the obsession with birds) but the “How did he do that?” factor of his appeal as an action spectacule craftsman is wholly supplanted by a handmade, indie quality (by necessity of budgetary restraints). Woo’s tendency to alternate between sweeping, operatic action and slapstick absurdity remains, however, even if his over-the-top vision is staged on a relatively smaller scale. The story also shifts slightly from Hard Boiled’s immersion in illegal arms trading culture to the not-too-dissimilar world of counterfeit money production (just one year after Friedkin’s stylistic action landmark To Live and Die in L.A. tackled the same topic), but the thematic concerns of obligation, betrayal, and honor remain the same in this test run. Two brothers, one a cop and one a gangster, are divided by their relationship with the law, but tragically reunited in their dual pursuits of avenging their father’s murder. Clichés of the counterfeiter brother struggling to find his way out of the inevitable cycle of crime are abound, but like all John Woo films, A Better Tomorrow is much more distinguished in its stylistic flourishes than it is in its narrative innovation. Even though the film’s story feels very common to 1980s action cinema, its peculiar tone and aesthetic carved out an entirely new style of filmmaking with influence that would reach far beyond Woo’s future projects like Hard Boiled. Chow Yun-Fat’s screen presence was very much at the center of that burgeoning aesthetic, something audiences immediately latched onto and Woo was smart to repeat.

Chow Yun-Fat portrays neither of the cop & gangster brothers at the center of A Better Tomorrow’s conflict, but rather a second, more jovial counterfeiter who serves as the doomed brother’s partner in crime. The two gangsters grin & rough-house like school boys, making a life of thievery & gun violence seem like it’d be a blast (until you get blasted dead). It should come as no surprise that the most sketched-out Bad Boy would come across as the coolest character in a highly stylized action film. When we first discussed Hard Boiled, we singled out Philip Kwok’s side character Mad Dog for similar reasons; Woo lovingly shoots both characters taking out entire rooms of fellow criminals in cool, confident, slow-motion shootouts that make them look like villainous gods. Chow Yun-Fat somehow looks even cooler than the eye patch-wearing, motorcycle-riding Mad Dog, however. You can practically hear Quentin Tarantino furiously taking notes for what would become Reservoir Dogs as Chow Yun-Fat strikes a pose in a handsome suit & sunglasses combo between his various shootouts. At the very least, Tarantino cites the extended shootout in A Better Tomorrow 2 as being a direct influence on his aesthetic. By the time Chow Yun-Fat was lighting his cigar with flaming dollar bills on the international posters for A Better Tomorrow, Woo knew exactly what kind of hot ticket stylistic commodity he had on his hands. In later collaborations like The Killer & Hard Boiled, Chow Yun-Fat was smartly put front & center as Woo’s preferred lead. He even managed to maintain his bad boy appeal in those pictures by continuing to play nuanced anti-heroes the audience could find both enviably cool and dangerous as a violent threat. Before slow-motion pigeons came to define the John Woo brand, Chow Yun-Fat was already an established, essential component of that aesthetic.

A Better Tomorrow’s status as a less-polished Hard Boiled has seemed to persist over the last few decades. Whereas the Dragon Dynasty DVD copy of Hard Boiled I was able to borrow form the library was slickly packaged with a entire disc of extras, that same library’s copy of A Better Tomorrow was a cheap SD transfer with a British vocal dub. That cheapness is admittedly charming in contrast to Hard Boiled’s high production values, though, a feeling backed up by the score’s nonstop onslaught of corny synths & electric drums. In 1986, films like A Better Tomorrow & To Live and Die in L.A. (with its own deliciously corny Wang Chung soundtrack) were not cheesy at all; they were the cutting edge in action cinema. A Better Tomorrow’s violence isn’t as immediate or as frequent as Hard Boiled’s, but it is a brutal, bloody contrast to that cheap synthpop cheese in an admirably mean, fully-committed way that makes the film feel well worth a look no matter how shoddy its home video format can be. The entertainment value of that contrast was obviously not lost on 1980s audiences either, as A Better Tomorrow earned two franchise follow-ups (one directed by Woo and one directed by Tsui Hark himself) and inspired an entire generation of action cinema devotees, from “heroic bloodshed”/”gun fu” imitators to Tarantino & his own generation of imitators to beyond. It’s only right that Chow Yun-Fat was along for the ride as John Woo himself repeated, revised, and refined the aesthetic established in A Better Tomorrow until he perfected it in Hard Boiled. This is the leaner, meaner test run for that more formally accomplished gun violence opera, but its value as a stylistic innovator & industry influencer is pronounced, not least of all because of the way Chow Yun-Fat embodies its distinct sense of action cinema cool onscreen.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American follow-up, Hard Target, and last week’s examination of the action genre spoof it inspired, Shoot ‘Em Up.

-Brandon Ledet


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