Better Tomorrow, A (1986) Review

"A Better Tomorrow" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"A Better Tomorrow" Japanese Theatrical Poster

Director: John Woo
Producer: Tsui Hark
Writer: John Woo, Chan Hing-Kai, Leung Suk-Wah
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Waise Lee, Emily Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Shek Yin-Chi, Tien Feng, Kam Hing-Yin, Wong Hap, John Woo, Shing Fui-On, Leung Ming
Running Time: 95 min.

By Joseph Kuby

Definitely worth the hype!

This film is slightly melodramatic (due to Chow Yun Fat but more particularly Leslie Cheung) though the film has a strong emotional undercurrent running through it which beats not only John Woo’s U.S. work but most dramatic films in general.

For those who like low-key and subtlely played yet heart-felt performances, I’d say that Ti Lung’s is the best in the film. Ti’s performance as a man caught up in a dilemma is fascinating whereas Leslie overdoes some of it, with Chow lingering somewhere in between being subtle and histrionic.

The action is groundbreaking for the time although somewhat rigid as it was John’s second contemporary action film (besides martial arts i.e. guns, pyrotechnics and car chases) so it doesn’t compete with his later works (which is why the action scenes in Schwarzeneggar’s Raw Deal* {released if not completely made in the same year as A Better Tomorrow} is on par with this, which is funny given the common perception that Hong Kong action films are superior to anything put out by anywhere else, films like Raw Deal and Drive prove likewise). Yet, the originality and style of the restaurant shootout is what makes up for the loose nature of the gun battles that precede and follow it.

Beyond the action, what’s important about this film was the way people looked at action movies on a non-action level. People can argue that there was always strong storytelling in action films before Woo came along but it can be argued that Woo helped to maintain and raise those standards with this film.

It’s a shame that the sequels are under-appreciated, which just goes to show you the benchmark standard Woo had raised with this film.

It’s really hard to imagine what would have happened had A Better Tomorrow been about female criminals (Tsui’s original interpretation of the story which is sort of reflected in the third installment).

* What’s interesting is that the director of Raw Deal, John Irvin, seemed to have been influenced by Woo’s movie as Irvin’s 1989 film, Next Of Kin (starring Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson), was essentially the first American heroic bloodshed movie. It plays like a semi-remake of A Better Tomorrow for those who care to spot the similarities.

Like Woo’s film, it’s an action film with the emphasis on family drama. It’s about the bond between brothers and what happens when that bond is broken, with Patrick’s cop character, Truman, is someone torn in a moral dilemma (ala Woo’s protagonists) between seeking vengeance for a fallen brother and upholding the law.

Tension mounts between Truman and Briar (ala Ti Lung’s Ho and Leslie Cheung’s Kit) after the death of a fallen family member before teaming up as a last resort to combat the mafia (especially with both of them on opposite sides of the law).

Mark wants revenge against his oppressors but wants help just like how Briar needs Truman’s assistance (of course Mark and Briar share the same grim fate).

Truman threatens to arrest Briar if he chooses to break the law to avenge their brother’s death (like how Kit threatens to arrest Ho) and even hits him (like how Kit does with Ho). Just like Kit’s wife, Truman’s wife is a classical musician who plays in concerts.

Funnily enough, just like A Better Tomorrow 2 and Just Heroes, Next Of Kin has the distinction of having a comic actor appearing in an early serious role (i.e. Ben Stiller).

Joseph Kuby’s Rating: 9.5/10

By Numskull

“A Better Tomorrow.” Not just a sappy phrase to indicate hope for a hopeless future. Not just the name of a cool track by Kreator after they matured past their “I’ll rip your flesh and torment your face” (actual song lyrics) phase. Not just the title of a Hong Kong movie…it’s the title of one of the BEST damn Hong Kong movies out there, one which has rightly achieved fame as an “ice breaker” for those just getting into the whole shebang (I refuse to label a film industry running the gamut from action to comedy to drama to horror as a “genre”).

This here be the film that made John Woo and Chow Yun-fat mega-stars and brought Ti Lung out of an alcoholic stupor and into the limelight again. It’s also considered the first and defining film in the “heroic bloodshed” genre (THERE’S that word). Woo’s preceding film, Heroes Shed No Tears, had lotsa guns but was more of a war-based action movie, and a rather sloppy one at that. A Better Tomorrow clearly shows immense maturity as a storyteller on Woo’s part, achieved in a very brief period of time.

Ti Lung skillfully emits a haunted, frustrated mood, Leslie Cheung is so pissy you want to slap him, and Chow Yun-fat’s job is mostly to just look cool. It certainly worked on Quentin Tarantino, who donned trenchcoat and sunglasses to emulate his new hero after seeing this film for the first time and put “Chow Yuen Fat” on the special thanks list for the Reservoir Dogs screenplay…and THEN, several years later, said of CYF in The Replacement Killers: “He sucks bad in that movie.” As if the overwhelming shittiness of the movie itself wasn’t at least partly to blame. Stupid fuckwad.

Anyway…not quite as much action here as in later classics like Hard Boiled, but that ain’t the point. The point is the expertly told (and deceptively simple) story, marred somewhat by poorly translated and ill-timed subtitles, but still plenty enjoyable. Many people have used A Better Tomorrow as a jumping-on point for HK cinema…including, unfortunately, Antoine Fuqua, director of The Replacement Killers, whose astounding incompetence made Chow Yun-fat’s first impression on the general American public a profoundly unpleasant one.

A Better Tomorrow is fast-paced without being rushed, kinetic without being mindless, emotional without being saccharine. Few films deserve their sterling reputations as much as this one does. Gotta love it.

Numskull’s Rating: 9/10

By Dan-O

I, Dan-O, of sound mind and even sounder body ( if anyone wants any beefcake pics of myself that I personally clipped out of Playgirl magazine, from pics that are clearly NOT of me, please e-mail me immediately) promise to all of you loyal readers out there that I will NOT write ANY “dirty words”, “cuss”, or otherwise say weird things, in this here review. I am doing this because it has recently come to my attention that some people out there in Internetville are “offended” by the “curse” words often written by me in my “reviews”. It is for this reason why I choose to censor myself here today. After all, I would like people to have the impression that I could easily communicate a simple and straightforward point of view without having to resort to such base forms of communication as “Guttural Slang”. I will not, for instance, say things like Shit, Shit-face, Fuck, Shit-Fucker, Shit-Face-Fucker, Cocksucker, Motherfuckingcocksukingtwatfacedshitfucker, Dildo, or Robert Clouse is a…(any of the above).

Now on with the show:

Ok, I like this movie, but who cares about that? If you do, ask yourself why you do… see what I mean. Feel silly don’t ya? Uh huh. I thought so.

Fact is, you DON’T really care that I like this movie. You already KNOW this is a good movie, just read all the other reviews…. THEY love it more than they love their own families! They wouldn’t lie, would they? Of course not.

What you REALLY WANT (yet you would NEVER admit to), is for me to rip this movie up one side and down the other, for NO REASON. You want to see this movie eviscerated, gutted, cooked over a high flame, served on one of those cute little revolving plates, all to serve your lowly carnivorous appetites.

Well, guess what. TODAY IS YOUR LUCKY DAAAAAY!!!!!


This pile of GARBAGE from John Woo starts off with Chow Yun Fat and what appears to be his gay lover licking their lips in a pointless scene so boring that it could only have been written by a hyperactive corpse. Then there’s some guns and shooting, which suck giant huevos. Chow Yun Fat gets shot in the leg, then looks like a pile of crap throughout the rest of this rat-ass film. Then he does some lovely crying, which he does allot in movies, and he happens to quite good at it. What a wussy. ‘Guess all those SOAP OPERA gigs served him well in the crying department. Then were treated to an extra heaping helping of this BLAMBLAMLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM, oh, someone tell Mr. Yun Fat to PLEASE stick that noodle back in his mouth. Stick the noodle… Chow…. the noodle, stick it in your….. are you listening….the noodle, Chow… it’s been dangling there for an hour out of the side of your mouth…. just take your finger, yeah that one… put Mr.Noodle back in the hangar…. theeeeeeere ya go!!! Goooood boy!!

Oh, the ending is awful too, really depressing. Chow Yun Fat dies….Awwwww, did I spoil the movie, did the mean man give away the surprise? Well, next time, to avoid such things, be a doll and WATCH THE STINKING MOVIE before you read a review, jackass.

*The preceding ‘load’ was not an actual review… If indeed you thought that this was an actual review you probably used to ride the short bus to school in the morning. It (the ‘load’) was written because the author is tired of writing normal, sunny, happy, John Q Public kind of reviews and wishes to write something more interesting than “It was awesome!” or “I would rather eat my own crotch than watch this movie again”. He failed, but hey, you got sucked into reading this anyway, so the author has accomplished his task(?) You wiener!

Go back to bed.

By the way, it was good movie. I like movies. This one also. Here’s a smiley for you to have 🙂

Dan-O’s Rating: 7/10

Vic Nguyen

The film that singlehandedly rejuvenated the career of John Woo, and gave Chow Yun-fat another best actor trophy. Shattering all previous box office records, this top grade production features superbly edited action sequences, a stirring theme song, excellent characterization and strong melodrama. One of Woo’s most heralded productions, this film influenced two sequels, countless ripoffs, and even started a brief fashion trend in Hong Kong. Unquestionably one of the most accomplished pieces by the director, this is a production that I cannot recommend enough.

Vic Nguyen’s Rating: 10/10

DJ Nixon

Chow Yun-Fat is my favorite actor in the world; and this movie, along with several others, show why I think this. This film is Chow’s first major break into movies, he even won a HK Oscar for it. The plot is very good and very emotional; Chow Yun-Fat and Ti Lung’s performances are great. The gun fights are great too; although they are not as good as Chow’s later films such as Hard Boiled or The Killer; they are still very well done. I especially loved the brief but very good gun fight where Chow comes into a room and blasts away at about 15 guys with two .45’s (his trademark weapon). He ends up getting shot in the leg two times though, and is crippled for the rest of his life. A awesome movie, whether you like drama’s or hardcore action, this movie is great!

DJ Nixon’s Rating: 10/10


John Woo’s classic melodrama about two troubled brothers. One is a cop who refuses to accept his brother, a criminal who decides to come clean. It plays almost like a soap opera, but with John Woo’s excellent direction and storyline. Tsui Hark produces this modern day hit, one of the milestones of HK cinema. Kit, the cop, his brother Ho (played by Ti Lung), and a guy that is coolness incarnate (Chow Yun Fat), eventually become involved with each other after each has an important event happen in his life. Kit and his wife see his father brutally murdered, Ti Lung’s character is arrested and put in jail, and Mark (Chow Yun Fat) is crippled after he kills an enemy. After these things take place, we see that each character is changed spiritually. Mark is now a lowly window washer and bum, Kit is depressed and refuses to accept his brother, and Ho promises to go clean by leaving a triad, but he finds that it’s not so easy…That’s when all three team up to help each other in an explosive finale.

S!DM’s Rating: 10/10

By James H.

“A Better Tomorrow” marks the beginning of an era. This film singlehandedly rejuvenated John Woo’s failing career. It also boosted supporting actor Chow Yun-Fat to superstar status and, in my opinion, coolest man on Earth. “A Better Tomorrow” had an inspired mix of violence and melodrama not seen since the earlier days of Sam Peckinpah.

The plot concerns a young cop (Cheung), his criminal brother (Lung) and how their paths cross. Things get complicated and bloodbaths ensue. While a very strong story, the screenplay trips up by adding a small amount of comedy in the first act.

It is a very good, and very well made film. But it does have its faults. For instance, the two main actors, Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung, are not necessarily strong actors. Neither of them have the ability or charisma to carry an entire film. Chow, however, saves this film from becoming just another HK action flick. He gives a well developed and believable performance for which he was awarded best actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

The action scenes are well done, although not as polished as some of Woo’s later works like “Hard Boiled” and “The Killer”. The shootout at the end is the most memorable, but the one with Chow in the restaurant stands out too.

I have seen both US and HK versions of the film. The HK version runs 95 minutes and has almost illegible subs. The US version runs 89 minutes, and is the most widely available. It features bad dubbing, and is missing a couple of scenes that are not really important to the plot.

James H’s Rating: 8.5/10

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on TumblrEmail this to someoneShare on Google+

This entry was posted in Chinese, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *