Weekend Retrospective - Brothers in Arms

A BETTER TOMORROW (1986)

'Do you believe in god?'
'Yes. I am God. God is human.'


Aka True Colours of a Hero. John Woo's breakout feature and his first foray into the 'heroic bloodshed' genre of action film is a pretty low key affair in comparison to his later works. In fact A Better Tomorrow 2 is a complete monster next to the original, with a gigantic body count, explosions that set actors on fire, and a verbal tirade about rice. It's an overloaded action spectacle dripping with melodrama and ridiculous plot twists. Which of course I have time for. But while his other films have been discussed here in the past, it's time to go back the start. While it's not the first of it's kind, it's hard not to see the influence on film just by looking at the career changes it would propel.

Notable not only for it's mix of triad thriller elements and martial arts meets gunplay action that would define a genre, it would also create a new hero in the guise of Chow Yun-Fat, a television actor known for his work as a romantic lead as well as in comedy. It's been said that the studio actually fought against his casting, which is kind of crazy looking at what followed. But there's a lot of great stuff here considering this was a first attempt in many ways, and it would ultimately pave the way for more crime and action movies. Appearing in an unpredictable explosion of new ideas it was released just months after both Police Story and Yes Madam hit screens at the end of 1985, revitalising Jacking Chan with fresh material and making a star of Michelle Yeoh respectively.


As a pure action feature the story is rather subdued when looking at the scale and spectacle of John Woo's more famous releases. Which isn't to say this is lacking in terms of pyrotechnics and bullet squibs, with Chow Yun-Fat's revenge on a restaurant full of gangsters early on revealing the level of style (and violence) that would soon become a standard hallmark. There's no overblown hospital showdown or any of those airborne doves from The Killer which seem to stick in peoples memories as part of every one of these films; but there's just enough fireworks throughout to make it visceral and engaging. There's more of a focus on character here and the themes of loyalty, brotherhood and honour among thieves are all present and correct.

Joseph Koo's mix of electronic guitar and synthesizer theme is very much of the period but remains memorable, and it fits with the vocal work of star Leslie Cheung which balances it by providing an emotional touch to key scenes. In fact this remains the most human action flick in Woo's résumé. The plot is pretty straightforward on the outset, with a tale of brothers on opposite paths soon to collide. One a triad boss and the other a rising star in the HKPD; the cast is full of charisma and does a good job of making this drama effective without it becoming sentimental or forced. Ti Lung plays elder brother Tse-Ho, the wiser and more patient one who has taken a darker course in life; while Leslie Cheung is the stubborn younger brother Tse-Kit who frequently loses his cool and has no time for his closest relative after finding out the reality of his work.


After a three year jump in time, all of these characters face new problems and have to resolve their differences after divides have grown and new adversaries have appears. Of course for some bloodshed is the only answer. Chow is along for the ride as Mark, the best friend of Tse-Ho and a different kind of brother, one from his life of money forging and shady organisations. His cool factor is a far cry from the slicked hair and stylish fashion from The Killer, and though the ultra stylish opening shows him at the top in that unbeatable sunglasses and trench coat combo, events soon conspire to bring him down a peg or two. And he has a long way to fall, facing humiliation and demotion in the organisation and spending most of the film in a leg brace and with various facial injuries. You really feel for the guy at the end when he takes on the henchman of double crossing sleaze-bag Shing (Waise Lee). As he starts to grin like a madman its a cathartic moment.

As a prototype for things to come they pretty much hit the ground running with this one, trademarks were earned and action stars were made. The producer Tsui Hark would eventually grow tired of all the shoot outs and take a third instalment in new and disappointing directions. After part two John Woo would instead direct Bullet in the Head with Tony Leung; which is no classic but still holds up as an alternative look at friendship in times of war. The rest is history and Chow Yun-Fat of course escaped the soap opera, taking the mantle of God of Gamblers and Hot Handed God of Cops amongst many other leading roles. If you're going to start somewhere though, this is the place to be.

4/5