1987 marked the only point in his career when John Woo - never fond of sequels - made a follow-up to one of his own films. The immense success of A Better Tomorrow led Cinema City to push for a continuation and Woo agreed, in part because comedian Dean Shek - one of the studio's co-founders - was in a poor financial position.
After being shot successfully in Hong Kong and New York City, A Better Tomorrow II had a difficult editing process, and Woo is said to have disowned much of the film. While the need to bring back Chow Yun-fat imposes a degree of implausibility to the story and the film doesn't equal its predecessor, ABT II is still an fascinating sequel with a number of masterful action sequences.
The story picks up several years after the conclusion of A Better Tomorrow. Following the death of Mark, Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Lung) remains in prison while his younger brother Sung Tse-Kit (Leslie Cheung) is working as an undercover cop. Ho is asked to spy on an his former mentor Lung Sei (Dean Shek) in exchange for early parole. He agrees only because Kit is involved with the same mission - to find out if Lung Sei is the mastermind behind a new triad counterfeiting operation.
Ho and Kit link up and establish that Lung has gone straight - however, he is soon framed for a murder by the real criminals, who lurk within his own organisation. With the help of Ho's friend from the first film (Kenneth Tsang), the pair smuggle Lung to the United States to seek refuge. His guardian there is Mark's previously unknown brother Ken (Chow Yun-fat) who has major problems of his own. Ultimately, the heroes regroup in Hong Kong to take on the true triad mastermind, Ko (Kwan Shan).
The story for A Better Tomorrow II was conceived by Tsui Hark, while the script was written by Woo. The plot's most notable element is the invention of Mark's long-lost brother Ken, a fairly implausible ploy to enable Cinema City to bring back Chow Yun-Fat. While this idea has been frequently mocked over the years, it's actually handled quite well - Woo's script and Chow's performance both reflect the tragic and comic potential of the idea. It's also interesting that Ken gradually morphs from being a distinct character in his own right to almost becoming Mark. This climaxes with Ken fatefully donning the bullet hole-riddled coat in which his brother died at the end of the previous film.
There's a slightly confusing feel to the film's plot, which is likely due in part to the disagreements during the edit. Tsui and Woo disagreed over the size of Dean Shek's role, and consequently his exile New York is fuzzy from a narrative standpoint. The character of Kit is also given relatively little screen time, while the female characters are even more peripheral than in A Better Tomorrow. At the same time, the sequel is an effective expansion of the original's themes. Ho visibly empathises with Lung Sei who is also attempting to go straight, for example, and Ken has a brilliantly "honourable" standoff with an unspeaking assassin - who is shown to be dismissive of money, marking him out as a kindred warrior spirit.
Today, A Better Tomorrow II is best known for its truly apocalyptic final gunfight. While the film has some impressive action sequences earlier on - especially when Ken battles a team of mafia hitmen in a sleazy New York hotel - this final battle is something else entirely. It matches the massive bodycount of Woo's earlier Heroes Shed No Tears with a much greater level of sophistication. As is typical of Woo's developing style, the shootout is manifestly implausible but represents an incredibly cathartic release of the film's pent-up energy.
Part of what makes the finale of the film so electrifying - and allows it to make up for some of the film's shortcomings - is how deftly introduced it is. Woo dresses his protagonists in iconic black suits with white ties, and gives them some brilliantly fatalistic dialogue which reflects the director's preoccupation with honour and sacrifice. These heroes know they will almost certainly die - but they earnestly believe that their actions will close a cycle of violence and honour those they have lost.
A Better Tomorrow II is a little too rough around the edges in terms of its narrative to rank among the very best of Woo's heroic bloodshed cycle. However, it was extremely important in terms of solidifying the style of action Woo was making his own. It's also an intriguing continuation for the characters, themes and story of A Better Tomorrow - and for that reason it remains a crucial part of Woo's Hong Kong filmography. With his later films, Woo would combine the advancements from this film with more solid narrative and emotional foundations, and the results would include some of the best and most important action films ever made.
Notes on UK Availability
A Better Tomorrow II was released by Hong Kong Legends on a limited edition DVD in 2006. Another version was released as part of the Hong Kong Legends partwork magazine series. These have both become scarce, and tend to cost over £20 second-hand. It can be more affordable to import the Hong Kong Region 0 disc, distributed by Fortune Star. This includes an amusingly bizarre special feature about the effects of gunfire and explosions on the human body!
Sometime film reviewer, Letterboxd user, novice Blu-Ray collector. Top 3 directors: Woo, Hill, Leone.
Henry V (UK, 1989) ★★★★½
The Fast and the Furious (USA, 2001) ★★★★
Goodfellas (USA, 1990) ★★★★★
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