Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: A Better Tomorrow II (1988)
Studio Line: Anchor Bay

Director John Woo (Face-Off, Mission: Impossible 2) and star Chow Yun Fat (Hard Boiled, The Replacement Killers) return in the jaw-dropping, heart-stopping sequel to the break-through gangster drama that changed action movies forever! This time, the mayhem blasts its way from New York City to Hong Kong as renegade gangsters and hot shot cops take on the syndicate in a relentless showdown of honor, loyalty and bullet-riddled revenge.

Considered by many fans to be superior to the original, A Better Tomorrow II is the award-winning action masterpiece whose final epic gun battle is one of the most awesome sequences of John Woo’s entire career.

Director: John Woo
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Dean Shek, Lung Ti, Leslie Cheung, Emily Chu, Fui-On Shing, Kenneth Tsang, Regina Kent
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio Cantonese Monaural, English Monaural; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 28 chapters; Not Rated; 104 min.; $24.98; street date 1/16/00.
Supplements: Hong Kong Trailer; International Trailer; Talent Bios.
Purchase: DVD

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

Call it the “Bobby Ewing Effect”. How does one bring back a character from the dead? That dilemma challenged the producers of 1987’s A Better Tomorrow II.

At the end of A Better Tomorrow, one of our protagonists, Mark (played by Chow Yun-Fat), takes the long dirt nap. However, ABT proved to be an enormous hit and audiences loved the cool, tough persona of Chow. As such, it seemed important to the sequel’s success to have Chow return. But how, Chow?

Through a method almost as lame as the “it was all a dream” technique used on Dallas. Mark indeed is gone for good, but instead we get - tada! - his twin brother Ken! Puhleeze! Yes, I was happy to see Chow again, but this was a tremendously weak plot twist. Actually, it’s doubly poor due to the choice of name. The film already had a character called “Ken” - couldn’t the filmmakers have given the brother a different title?

Despite these weaknesses, ABT II succeeds quite well. It’s a testament to the high quality of the film that I was able to ignore most of its idiocy and go with the flow. It’s also an indication that ABT II is well-made since it largely repeats the story of the first movie. That one concerned redemption and leaving the criminal life as we watched Ho (Lung Ti) try to make himself into an honest man. In the sequel, Ho’s still struggling, but that element focuses mainly on Si Lung (Dean Shek), a gangster who suffers trials like those that affected Job.

To save his life, Lung heads to America where he’s helped by brother Ken. Things continue to spiral downward there, however, and it takes some dramatic turns of events to bring Lung back to the land of the living.

As I mentioned, the story isn’t particularly original. Not only does it largely repeat what we saw in the first film, but it also clearly was inspired by The Godfather. In fact, the movie’s climax strongly borrows from the ending of Coppola’s classic. Both movies featured a protagonist who strongly wanted to walk the straight and narrow but who just couldn’t seem to avoid the criminal life.

It’s a testament to the talents of Woo that ABT II never feels like a cheap imitation of The Godfather, and it also doesn’t come across as a rehash of the first ABT. In the hands of a less-qualified director, the film could have been a disaster. Heck, it probably should have been a disaster, as it had a lot of strikes against it right off of the bat.

However, ABT II works as well as the first film, and might actually be better. The original flick offered stronger characterizations and was a deeper movie, but the sequel makes up for those aspects with much more compelling action. ABT is regarded as the beginning of the Woo dynasty, but its sequel more closely resembles the Woo we’ve come to know. The movie delights in its many moments of stylized, over-the-top violence and the battles pack a serious punch. ABT was gritty, but ABT II really overwhelms the viewer with its graphic scenes.

Despite the heavy violence, I never thought the action seemed gratuitous. When I think of violence for the sake of violence, I conjure images of movies like Schwarzenegger’s Commando. Its climax just showed shot after shot of shootings with no real purpose. That’s the kind of bloodshed that makes me numb.

Similar problems don’t affect the visceral and highly-compelling action of A Better Tomorrow II. The movie repeats much of what we saw in the original film but it does so with style and verve. Although the sequel lacks great depth or scope, it features some terrific action sequences and maintains a solid pace. I probably prefer the original film, but both have a lot to offer.

The DVD:

A Better Tomorrow II 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. As I noted in my review of ABT, Woo’s Hong Kong films generally look pretty bad, and ABT II is no exception.

As a whole, the picture of ABT II strongly resembles what I saw on the DVD of the first film. Sharpness seemed slightly better for the sequel but it still came across as generally soft and fuzzy for much of the movie. The picture alternated between scenes of relative crispness and those that were hazy without much rhyme or reason, though most of the movie was adequately defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges showed no significant concerns, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV were minor.

Colors and black levels presented the same bland qualities found during ABT. Hues were fairly muddy and drab; at times they came across with acceptable clarity and brightness, but those occasions were exceptions. Blacks were similarly flat and blah, and shadow detail seemed too heavy and murky; low-light scenes were somewhat difficult to discern. These areas strongly corresponded to what I saw in the first film.

Print flaws posed a more substantial problem for ABT II. For the most part, the concerns remained similar. Through much of the film, I saw general grain and a few examples of speckles and grit, but the defects remained modest. There were some very notable exceptions, however. At both the 1:34:55 and 1:36:15 marks, I saw extremely nasty tears in the film. These aren’t minor flaws; the rips are so huge I’d be shocked to find them in a movie from the Thirties much less in a modern film. Frankly, those tears are what kept ABT II from a “C” rating. The rest of the image improved slightly upon what I found in the first film so I would have bumped up my grade from ABT’s “C-“. However, those tears were atrocious and they made it impossible for me to upgrade my rating. Ultimately, ABT II seemed watchable but fairly weak.

Worse was the film’s monaural soundtrack. The first film got a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix from its mono stems, but ABT II is stuck with its original one-channel audio. And it’s fairly poor audio at that. As a whole, the track sounded flat and drab. As with the first movie, most of the dialogue integrated poorly with the action; this was especially true for lines spoken in English - which probably were re-recorded - but applied even to the speech in Cantonese. The dialogue seemed artificial and unnatural. I couldn’t judge the intelligibility of the Cantonese speech, but since I had a lot of trouble understanding the English lines, I’d guess they’re also pretty flawed.

Effects were mildly distorted and lacked dynamics, as did the score. In the first movie, some of the music seemed deep and rich, though this aspect was quite erratic. The score to ABT II is more consistent, but it’s consistently weak. The music sounded thin and tinny throughout the film, and the entire track lacked any sort of low end or clear highs. It’s a very drab and lifeless mix that is definitely below average for its era.

Note that ABT II also offers the dubbed English version of the film. Sometimes I prefer English versions of foreign movies, but I have yet to find an Asian flick that didn’t offer terrible dubbing. Frankly, I simply avoid these altogether, so I can’t comment on the quality of the re-recorded edition of ABT II. However, it’s there, so if you prefer dubs, you can use this one.

A Better Tomorrow II tosses in some minor supplements. We get the original Hong Kong trailer and also an “International” trailer. Both of these are odd pieces. The former apparently uses footage solely taken from the first film; the only thing that marks it as an ad for the sequel is the inclusion of the “II” at the end. While the latter shows footage from the actual movie in question, it also provides a very silly narration to sell the movie. It doesn’t work.

Finally, the DVD includes some very good “Talent Bios” for Woo and Chow Yun-Fat. These are the same listings found on the ABT DVD, so if you’ve read them there, you don’t need to see them again here. In any case, I thought they provided nice outlines of the careers of Woo and Chow, so they made for a nice though small addition to this DVD.

Although A Better Tomorrow II should have been a clunker, it manages to avoid a series of potholes and provides an exciting and compelling experience. The story can be redundant, but the film is executed with great verve and style; it always kept me interested and it worked very well. The DVD suffers from weak picture and sound plus few extras. As was the case with the original film, the problems related to the presentation of the film itself seem to stem mainly from the source material; as such, it’s probably unlikely that ABT II will ever look or sound much better than what we find here. Additional supplements would have made this a more interesting package, however. As such, it’s a DVD that I recommend to fans of the genre, but I don’t do so with great enthusiasm; I liked A Better Tomorrow II, but the DVD is not a great piece of work.

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