Movie review: John Woo classic gets remade for new generation

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 07 2018 02:49 PM

In 1986, the original "A Better Tomorrow" film, written and directed by John Woo, was a landmark action film. It is recognized as the template for the so-called "heroic bloodshed" type of films where the scenes of violence are imbued with the spirit of honor and brotherhood like "The Killer" (1989), "Hard Boiled" (1992), and even American films like those of Quentin Tarantino or Luc Besson.

"A Better Tomorrow" launched Chow Yun Fat to superstardom, not only in Hong Kong, but also internationally. Chow did not even play either of the two brothers who were the main characters (played by Ti Lung as elder Ho and Leslie Cheung as younger Kit). However, it was Chow's magnetic charismatic performance as the trenchcoat-wearing Mark, the best friend of the elder brother, that fans of the film will always remember about it.

"A Better Tomorrow" had been remade in 2010 in Korea, directed by Song Hae-sung and starring Joo Jin-mo and Kim Kang-woo as the two brothers and Song Seung-heon as the best friend. John Woo himself was the executive producer.

This year, there is yet another remake, this time from China, directed by Ding Sheng, starring Wang Kai and Ma Tianyu as the two brothers and Darren Wang as the best friend, also named Mark.

The basic story followed the original movie closely. Kai, the elder of the Zhou brothers, had been involved in smuggling abroad in Japan. Kai's best friend is the reckless but fiercely loyal Mark. Chao, the younger brother, idolized Kai, thinking he is working abroad as a seaman. By the time Kai returned to their seaside hometown of Qingdao, Chao is already an idealistic policeman. One day, Kai's criminal activities caught up with him, and this put him directly at odds with his brother.

There were scenes which were obviously recreations of the first film but tweaked accordingly to more current styles, notably Kai's arrest scene and Mark's revenge killing spree scene. There were some changes in details. Ho's original syndicate dealt with counterfeiting; for Kai, it was smuggling. When he tried to turn over a new leaf, Ho drove taxis in the first film, while Kai sold seafood in the second. The whole ending sequence of the remake though is a major departure from the former.

Wang Kai portrayed Kai as a noble and humble man, even if he led a life of crime. He had a quiet intensity and deep sense of loyalty that makes him a character you'd root for. Ma Tianyu as Chou looked much younger than his actual age of 31. He played the hotshot cop with brashness and cockiness. Darren Wang's portrayal of Mark as a carefree impulsive rascal can be very charming yet badass. Wang had the unenviable job of trying to fill Chow Yun Fat's shoes in this role, and he managed to give the role his own spin.

Jackie, the girlfriend of the younger brother, was a ditzy cello player in the first film (even with scenes of slapstick comedy). In the second film, she is Lulu, a sober, responsible nurse. The father in the first film was aware of his eldest son's crimes, but in the remake, the father had dementia. Every time the scene featured the Zhou patriarch, those emotional scenes were effectively tear-jerking.

As for the villain, the shy apprentice-turned-ruthless boss Cang in the new film basically had the same character arc as Shing in the first film, though the original actor Waise Lee was more sinister than Ailei Yu was in the new one.

The action scenes were entertaining to watch with their bone-crunching execution. The most memorable ones were those fight scenes with the Chinese opera going on in the background. There is another big gunfight scene with some geisha dancers downstairs adding some interest. On the other hand, I thought the film had too many melodramatic interludes of seagulls flying over the ocean scored with generic sounding Oriental music.

There were nice references to the old film, like the matchstick Chow Yun Fat held in his mouth, and there was even a scene where we see the original 1986 movie poster. Despite all the nifty updating that Ding Sheng and crew did though, I am still not convinced that they they really needed to remake such an iconic film. If this remake gets the new generation to look back and check out the 1986 original, then that would be its best tribute. 7/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."