A Better Tomorrow: Ultimate Edition (UK - DVD R2)
Scott McKenzie checks out the Ultimate Edition release of the John Woo classic
Chow Yun-fat plays Mark Gor, a member of the Triads who along with his friend Ho (played by Ti Lung) run a successful counterfeiting scheme. When Ho is double-crossed and sent to prison, Mark takes revenge but is injured and is reduced to cleaning the boss’s car by the time Ho is released. Ho’s brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) is a police officer and shuns his sibling when he finds out about his criminal life. Try as he might, Ho can’t leave his criminal past behind him and is drawn back into helping Mark get back at their enemies while trying to seek Kit’s forgiveness.
After paying his dues making comedies for Golden Harvest against his will, the meeting of minds between John Woo and producer Tsui Hark resulted in the decision to remake the 1967 Hong Kong drama Story of a Discharged Prisoner. Woo also used the opportunity to channel his frustrations and deliver the combination of drama and action that Golden Harvest would not allow him to produce. The resulting movie was incredibly successful, breaking records in Hong Kong, and allowed John Woo to focus on the type of films he always wanted to make.
A Better Tomorrow is the first collaboration between John Woo and Chow Yun-fat and marks the beginning of the action sub-genre dubbed ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ by western critics. The themes of friendship and honour feature heavily and continue to do so throughout Woo’s body of work since in titles such as The Killer, Hard Boiled and Face/Off. The screenplay focuses on the bonds between strong characters and what happens when one of them has to go to prison. Even though A Better Tomorrow is heavy on action, Ho’s relationships with Mark and Kit are at the core of this movie.
Early in his career, Woo had served at the Shaw Brothers’ studios as an assistant to action director Chang Cheh. He wanted to bring the action genre up to date and replaced the swordplay of Cheh’s movies with a style of gunplay that had never been seen on screen before. The second phrase that was coined as a result of this movie is ‘bullet ballet’, describing Woo’s choreographed style of action, which is intentionally over the top, with the characters never reloading and firing off more bullets than the guns could ever hold. These intricately planned sequences, especially Chow Yun-fat’s one-man army attack, are breathtaking and set the standard for movie shootouts ever since.
The performances of the three central actors add an emotional depth that is notoriously lacking in the action genre. Ti Lung is a veteran of kung fu movies and while there is a brief nod to his previous roles during a scene with Leslie Cheung, with the character of Ho he gets to show a wide range and is very much the emotional core of the movie. The young and sadly missed Leslie Cheung shows just why he was a well-respected actor in the role of Kit, who is torn between his family and his responsibility as a police officer. However, Chow Yun-fat steals the show as the super-cool killer Mark, whose iconic style is based on the character of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai.
It’s difficult to imagine modern action movies without the influence of A Better Tomorrow. John Woo’s signature techniques of two-handed gunplay and slow motion have been referenced and just plain ripped off ever since, both in Hollywood and in his native Hong Kong. It is a classic that, at ninety minutes, doesn’t over-stay its welcome and is both compelling and exciting from beginning to end.
Bad news, I’m afraid. The lovely steel case promises a digitally restored and remastered movie but the result was far from my expectations. Apart from the fact that it is anamorphic, the video quality is a real let-down. You name it, we’ve got it here. The picture is very grainy, fuzzy and lacks detail, particularly in the background of wide shots. There are occasional scratches and dirt on the picture, which also flickers from time to time. Whatever process Optimum used to remaster the film, I hope they didn’t spend too much on it because it doesn’t work.
More bad news, I’m afraid. There are releases of A Better Tomorrow in region one and region three with Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks, but what we get in little ol’ Blighty is a Mono track. There isn’t as much interference in the audio as there is on the picture but the dialogue is muted and the music sounds tinny. On DVD we expect a lot more from an ‘Ultimate Edition’ than VHS-quality audio.
Disc one comes with a feature commentary from Asian film expert Bey Logan. He is a well-respected and sought-after commentator and it’s easy to see why. Some DVD commentaries are peppered with long moments of silence from less well-prepared filmmakers and critics, but once again Logan delivers non-stop facts and insights about a film that he obviously loves. The other extra on disc one is the theatrical trailer.
The main extra on disc two is a made-for-TV documentary about John Woo. With his involvement, it tracks his life from growing up in the slums of Hong Kong to his career at Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, then through the breakthrough movies like A Better Tomorrow to his Hollywood blockbusters. Interviews with collaborators past and present are linked together to provide an in-depth analysis of the director’s life and the influences on his work. Also included on the second disc are archive interviews with John Woo and Chow Yun-fat from 1993. Most revealing of all is Yun-Fat’s admission that he didn’t like reprising his role from A Better Tomorrow and isn't a fan of either of the sequels.
A Better Tomorrow is a classic that deserves a place on the shelf of any fan of action movies. This is a decent set that is the best available in the UK but there are more comprehensive sets available in region three. The video and audio quality let the set down overall and while it’s worth picking up if you can find it for a good price, it doesn’t deserve the ‘Ultimate Edition’ tag.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 26th June 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Cantonese Mono
Extras: Commentary with Bey Logan, Trailer, Crossings: John Woo Documentary, Interviews
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Woo
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, John Woo
Genre: Action and Drama
Length: 90 minutes
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