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

Cross-Promotion: Knock Off (1998) on Crushed Celluloid’s Jean-Pod Van Damme Podcast

I was recently invited back to join in on another episode of Jean-Pod Van Damme, a podcast that, as you’d likely guess, is solely dedicated to the cinematic wonders of the Muscles from Brussels, JCVD. Hosted by Marcus Jones of the movie blog Crushed Celluloid (which has an eponymous flagship podcast as well), Jean-Pod Van Damme is a irony-free celebration of one of action cinema’s more unlikely stars, a meathead European martial arts expert who stumbles in convincingly delivering his laugh lines. In this specific episode of JPVD, Marcus & I discussed the 1998 Van Damme/Rob Schneider team-up action comedy Knock Off. Directed by Tsui Hark (the same Hong Kong legend who directed JCVD’s team-up with Dennis Rodman, Double Team), Knock Off is a kind of spiritual sequel to the film I discussed with Marcus the last time I guested on his show.

Give a listen to Jean-Pod Van Damme’s episode on Knock Off below! And if you like what you hear, you can find Crushed Celluloid on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their regular ol’ homepage for more enthusiastic takes on fringe genre cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Double Team (1997)

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Try to think back to a time before he started making baffling political affiliations with North Korea & Donald Trump; Dennis Rodman was a pretty cool dude. For a high profile athlete, Rodman was a striking pop culture presence in his gender-fluid fashion choices. Belly rings, make-up, wedding dresses, brightly-dyed hair: these aren’t exactly the typical hallmarks of an NBA superstar’s wardrobe and I think we shouldn’t take for granted how cool it was that Rodman was blurring gender lines in his personal style choices in the 90s, even if he’s revealed himself to be an ass in the decades since. Where there’s novelty, there’s always money to be made, too. It turns out that action movie producers at the time were inexplicably interested in cashing in on Rodman’s striking visual presence & converting that gender fluidity into box office dollars through some kind of shoot-em-up cinema alchemy. The first title in Rodman’s very short career as an action hero found him teaming up with genre mainstay Jean-Claude Van Damme. He is in no way natural to the terrain, feeling like a cameo role that somehow got conflated to second-bill in a buddy picture and his strange presence elevates what would be a standard issue action film into a chaotic mess of loosely connected set pieces & glorious inanity. Double Team would’ve been a decent genre picture without Rodman, but it gets excitingly, memorably dumb when he kinks up the works, both literally & figuratively.

Double Team plays like two distinct movies smashed together into an incoherent mess. One film is your standard JCVD vehicle where the Muscles from Brussels must retrieve his pregnant wife from the treacherous clutches of a before-he-got-gross Mickey Rourke. In this half, Rodman sort of makes sense in what seems like a single-scene cameo as a kooky arms dealer who hangs out in a pansexual, S&M themed nightclub. The film’s other half is a technofuture fantasy about an island of highly skilled assassins being held prisoner (with the help of underwater lasers, of course) because they’ve “gone soft” and forced to work as an espionage think tank. Because Rodman’s role as a wise-cracking sidekick was needlessly expanded to last throughout the entire length of the film, neither of Double Team‘s dueling plots ever feel like they have enough room to breathe. Either a whole movie about escaping the futuristic assassin island or one about taking down a wickedly cruel Rourke could’ve worked coherently on its own, but when smashed together & elbowed into the corners of the frame by Rodman’s ball-hogging screen presence, it’s mostly just a ludicrous mess (and all the more memorable for it). By the time Double Team‘s parade of cartoonish set-pieces (which include carnivals, infirmaries, fetish clubs, and fantasy islands) culminate in a climactic martial arts showdown in an ancient coliseum loaded with landmines and a bloodthirsty tiger, none of these plot concerns matter. At all. You just passively watch Rodman & JCVD duck for cover behind some convenient ad placement Coke machines as the coliseum explodes and the credits bring on a club hit featuring Rodman’s rhythmic mumblings & a pulsing gay 90s beat. Double Team is gloriously half-cooked in this way and I’m not sure I would have preferred a version of the film that followed through on any of its loosely-connected storylines any more carefully or thoroughly than it already did. That attention was much better spent on crafting & presenting Dennis Rodman’s wide range of distinct looks & flatly-delivered one-liners, no question.

There is really only one scene in Double Team where Dennis Rodman’s involvement makes sense. Van Damme is in need of some high tech gear early in the film to take out Rourke’s trecherous terrorist and he finds his perfect weapons dealer in Rodman. For his part, the basketball star is holed up in a massive, queer nightclub loaded with drag queens, club kids, and SCUBA-themed S&M models. Rodman’s most natural involvement in this film would’ve been to sell JCVD some cool future-guns and exchange a couple sarcastic quips before being on his merry way, never to return. Indeed, Van Damme asks Rodman, “Who does your hair, Siegfried or Roy?” Rodman shoots back, “The last guy who insulted my hair is still pulling his head out of his ass,” to which Van Damme responds, “I don’t want to hear about your sex life.” In a movie where that was the end of their transaction, this scene would have played as casually homophobic, but since Rodman & Van Damme are burgeoning buddies at the start of a feature-length bromance, it somehow comes off as light, harmless teasing. Rodman shoehorns himself into the rest of the film’s plot to make room for sore thumb basketball references (“The best defense is a good offense,” “Oops! Airball,”) & a wide range of gender-defiant wardrobe choices, with no further reference made to his sexuality in the script before his gay 90s club hit plays over the end credits. It’s an oddly progressive choice for something that’s mostly a by-the-books action flick and although Rodman’s sore thumb presence & subpar line deliveries disrupt Double Team‘s narrative structure & pacing, they also elevate the film into a more memorable camp spectacle status.

Double Team is the American debut of Chinese action director Tsui Hark, whose most recognizable credits might be a stray Jet Li or Jackie Chan production among his sea of titles like A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon a Time in China, and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. The filmmaker is well-respected in his martial arts cinema genre of choice and I think Double Team might’ve worked a little better if its narrative were allowed to stretch out to a standard Chinese action film’s runtime, which tend to be a little lengthier than American genre pictures. Compressing the disparate storylines of Double Team into a brisk 90min package made each story beat feel inconsequential & frivolous, especially since so much of the film was dedicated to the lofty goal of making Dennis Rodman seem funny & tough. Tsui Hark seems a tad overqualified for such a generic action vehicle in the first place, but his sense of scale & brutality makes for memorable action cinema moments, especially once the tigers & hospitals full of newborn babies get involved. Rodman’s blinding distraction of a presence makes sure that the film’s action sequences and hodgepodge plot are in no danger of dominating discussion surrounding the film, however. This is a mid-90s camp relic most notable for its inclusion of a gender-defiant fashion prankster with some highly questionable political affiliations who apparently used to play basketball or something. I can’t say for sure if Rodman’s strange presence was enough to carry a lead role in his other action vehicle, Simon Sez, and I’m honestly a little afraid to find out. However, as a comic relief sidekick with an attitude problem airdropped into an action vehicle where he doesn’t belong (like so many Poochies of X-treme 90s past), he’s a delightfully off-putting novelty that makes Double Team way more fun & noteworthy than it has right to be.

-Brandon Ledet