Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Studio Line: Anchor Bay - Brothers by blood. Enemies by chance. Killers by nature.

A Better Tomorrow is the film that started it all, full of John Woo’s now-classic trademarks of jaw-dropping style, heart-stopping action and gunfire mayhem that must be seen to be believed. Chow Yun-Fat stars in this epic story of suave gangsters and renegade cops who discover that in a world bound by honor, revenge comes at the speed of a bullet.

Written, and directed by John Woo, this is the breakthrough film that made international superstars of both Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, and single-handedly changed the look of action movies forever!

Director: John Woo
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Emily Chu, Waise Lee, Fui-On Shing, Kenneth Tsang, Hark Tsui, John Woo
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0, English Monaural; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 29 chapters; Not Rated; 94 min.; $24.98; street date 1/16/00.
Supplements: Cantonese Trailer; English Trailer; Talent Bios.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C-/D-

Reader Alert 1/16/01: It has come to my attention from reading the posts at Home Theater Forum that the Cantonese track on the DVD is improperly mastered. Instead of the track featuring the original music, it uses music from Terminator 2, Forrest Gump and Speed. Ironically, the alteration does not appear on the English dubbed track. My advice is to hold off on purchasing the disc until Anchor Bay recalls and fixes the problem. The problem does not appear on A Better Tomorrow 2. Please read the post for more information on how to contact Anchor Bay. The review below will be revised after Colin confirms the problem on his disc.--Van T. Tran, Editor

Although they wouldn’t become well-known in the United States for a few more years, A Better Tomorrow is the film that established the killer (pun intended) tandem of director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-Fat. Both had worked in Hong Kong cinema for quite some time prior to the movie’s 1986 release, and apparently they’d enjoyed some success. However, ABT is the flick that really set them on the road to greater glory.

I must admit I’ve come to Woo’s Hong Kong efforts in a rather haphazard manner. The first film of his I ever saw was The Killer, and that was on videotape quite a few years ago. I later saw Hard Boiled - also on tape - and went to each of his American movies when they began to appear; Woo first made Hard Target in 1993, and he followed that with 1996’s Broken Arrow and 1997’s Face/Off.

The latter is the one that solidified my interest in Woo’s work. I simply loved F/O and thought it was one of the best action films I’d seen in years. Woo’s follow-up - 2000’s hit Mission: Impossible II was interesting but didn’t match up to the heights of F/O.

At this point, I should probably revisit both The Killer and Hard Boiled. Those two struck me as less-than-spectacular when I saw them, but I may have gone into them with incorrect expectations. After watching A Better Tomorrow, I feel that I may see them in a different light.

ABT definitely establishes the Woo trademarks of stylish, graphic violence but it never sacrifices character for theatrics. Actually, ABT seemed to offer much less action than one expects from a Woo vehicle. For certain, it has a lot of gunfights and stunts, but they aren’t the primary focus.

Instead, ABT concentrates on its storyline of redemption. The movie sticks mainly to Ho (Lung Ti), his brother Kit (Leslie Cheung), and Ho’s friend and partner Mark (Chow Yun-Fat). Ho and Mark are criminal big wigs who specialize in counterfeit American money. Inevitably, things go bad; Mark is crippled and Ho goes to jail.

When Ho emerges from the joint, Mark is left as a beggar and Kit is a policeman. Because of Ho’s criminal status, Kit can’t get a break at work; he’s constantly viewed with suspicion and passed over for promotion. Ho just wants to give up the sleazy life and become a law-abiding citizen, but his past also makes it difficult for him to do so.

This story isn’t anything ground-breaking, but Woo pulls it off with characteristic aplomb. Unlike most action movies, each of the characters is invested with adequate exposition and development to make them seem real, and this element is what makes ABT special. It felt like a drama that just happened to feature action scenes, rather than a shoot-em-up with some artificial character moments grafted onto it.

At times I felt the acting tended to seem a little excessively emotive, but I suppose I should account for some cultural differences here. Since I know little about the lifestyle in Hong Kong, it’s much more difficult for me to assess normal patterns of speaking or behavior, so it’s altogether possible that the behaviors are perfectly typical. That said, I never felt this aspect of the movie was a problem in any way; it was just something different that I noticed.

Because I enjoy most of John Woo’s films, I expected to like A Better Tomorrow, but I must admit I was surprised that I cared for it as much as I did. I’d been modestly disappointed by some of his other Hong Long movies, but ABT seemed thoroughly satisfying. It’s an action film with heart and drama that works well on many levels.

The DVD:

A Better Tomorrow appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I haven’t seen a ton of Woo’s Hong Kong films but I’ve viewed enough to know that they generally look bad. Frankly, I don’t understand why this is, but the pattern continues on ABT; the film seemed consistently watchable but weak for its age.

Sharpness appeared erratic. Much of the movie came across as acceptably crisp and detailed, but other segments faltered for no apparent reason. Significant portions of the film were soft and fuzzy, and much of it lacked appropriate clarity. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no serious concerns, and I saw few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws appeared relatively minor. Some grain occurred throughout much of the film, and I also saw some instances of grit and speckles, but these weren’t much of a concern. A couple of scenes showed some odd flickering that lasted for a brief time. Really, only the grain caused a serious problem, as other defects were quite modest.

Colors appeared generally bland and murky. At times I saw some relatively effective hues, as a few examples of red came across with acceptable depth and clarity, but as a whole the colors were largely flat. The same concerns applied to the black levels, which also seemed drab and without much intensity. Contrast appeared fairly weak, and shadow detail was excessively thick and heavy; low-light situations presented the muddiest scenes in the film. As a whole, I can’t call the image truly bad, but it certainly presented a lot of flaws.

Similar concerns affected the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of A Better Tomorrow. This is a remix of the original monaural audio, and it actually presented a fairly decent though unnatural soundfield. The audio stayed strongly to the front spectrum. In that domain, I heard passable use of discrete capabilities, though much of the sound appeared too strongly oriented toward one speaker or another; at times the audio blended together nicely but for the most part the sounds seemed isolated from each other. This created a track with a distinctly sterile feeling to it.

Usage of the surrounds was fairly minimal. The rears contributed some minor reinforcement of music and tossed in a little split-surround action during the film’s climax. Otherwise the rears were unengaging and tepid partners in the soundtrack.

Although the soundfield seemed unremarkable, it worked well enough to avoid becoming a real problem. Audio quality, however, was a much greater concern. Although ABT uses the original Cantonese dialogue, speech often seemed poorly-integrated with the action; the result is a film that came across as a weakly-dubbed affair much of the time. Because I don’t speak the language, I can’t judge the intelligibility of the Cantonese track, but the dialogue seemed artificial and thick for the most part.

Effects sounded excessively phony as well, and they were too prominent in the mix. These aspects of the track lacked any serious distortion, but they were generally unconvincing and they didn’t blend well with the visuals. Music offered some of the track’s highlights but it also was erratic. At times the score sounded deep and rich, with some nice dynamics, but it could quickly become thin and tinny. The music alternated between sounding lush and seeming drab throughout the movie, with no apparent rhyme or reason to the changes. As a whole, the 5.1 remix of ABT had enough going for it to merit a “C-“, but it remains a generally weak effort.

At least it tops the English dub of the film. The latter appears in a monaural track. It presents all of the same flaws found on the 5.1 mix but it lacks any of the strengths. Obviously the soundfield doesn’t present any expansiveness, and the artificial qualities of the speech are exacerbated due to the silly sound of the English performers. For all its flaws, the Cantonese track is the way to go.

A Better Tomorrow includes a few minor extras. We find a very long (four minute) trailer in Cantonese; this can be viewed with or without subtitles. The same trailer appears dubbed into English as well. The latter adds some silly narration that doesn’t make me want to rush to see ABT. Lastly, the DVD includes some solid “Talent Bios” for Woo and Chow Yun-Fat. I found these to be very detailed and interesting as they discuss both careers. The entries provide much greater depth than is typical of these kinds of listings. Now if only they could decide when A Better Tomorrow II came out they’d be truly terrific; one place states 1987, while another says 1988 (the former appears to be correct).

Although A Better Tomorrow lacks significant supplements, the movie itself merits your attention. The film signaled the start of the very successful collaboration between John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, and it still plays well almost 15 years after its initial release. The DVD itself is less stellar, as it presents fairly weak picture and sound plus few extras. I liked the film enough to recommend at least a rental, but I can’t give ABT a stronger referral due to the disc’s issues; the picture and sound concerns seem to stem from the source material, but additional supplements would have made this a more compelling package.

Support DVD Movie Guide, visit our sponsors.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top