After the unexpected world-wide success of John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow", it was only natural that a sequel would soon be on the cards. The film had not only given the careers of its leads a new lease of life by creating a brand new genre especially for them, but also fully realised the vision of its director, whose first action movie, "Heroes Shed No Tears", had broadly hinted at the approach that, after "... Tomorrow", was to become his trademark: an explosive mix of meticulously choreographed bouts of balletic violence and highly-wrought emotional drama, which finally came fully into focus with this bloody tale of loyalty, honour and revenge. There was only one drawback to the idea of a sequel though: the character played by Chow Yun Fat had been bumped off at the end of the original! "A Better Tomorrow" helped make the actor an international star, and the ultra-cool persona he created in the film --the trench-coat wearing, tooth-pick-sucking, double gun blasting anti-hero -- had since become an iconic cinematic image, influencing many Hollywood action movies and a certain cinema-obsessed young filmaker called Quentin Tarantino! The prospect of a sequel without Chow Yun Fat was unthinkable.
This means the film has to be saddled with a lame "identical twin brother" device in order to get Yun Fat back into the fray; so, straight-away we know that the plot is going to be no great shakes! This proves to be the case; indeed, the film often plays that a comic-strip parody of the original. The emotional arch of the three leads played itself out to completion in the first film in a perfectly satisfying way: ex-Yakuza head, Kit (Leslie Cheung), comes out of prison determined to go straight, while his best friend, Mark Lee (Chow Yun Fat) has lost a leg in the act of avenging those who originally betrayed him, and now wants Kit to join-up and take revenge on those who have taken over their old organisation. Meanwhile, Kit wants nothing more than to be reconciled with his police officer younger brother Sung (Ti Lung), who is ashamed of his criminal brother because of his job. Eventually all three are bonded in a climactic bloodbath that ends with Mark's sacrificial death and Kit letting his younger brother turn him in, allowing Sung to gain a new understanding of his elder brother's code of honour.
The second film can't do much more with the relationship between Kit and Sung; and Chow Yun Fat's re-emergence as Ken, Mark's brother -- who has been living in New York the whole time, running a Chinese restaurant -- is handled with little subtlety. The film starts with a montage of flashbacks that reprise the main points of the previous film before we join Kit in his prison cell, still tortured by the death of his best friend. The Police authorities want Kit to go undercover in order to flush out a secret counterfeiting scheme that the authorities believe is being organised by his old colleague, Si Lung (Dean Shek) using his shipping business as a front. They promise him early release as a reward but Kit refuses until he learns that his brother Sung has already been assigned the case, and is infiltrating the organisation by getting close to Lung's daughter, Peggy. Both brothers realise that Lung is completely innocent of the charges and that the counterfeiting plot is being organised by his second-in-command, Ko Ying Pui (Kwan San). He sets up Si Lung for several murders, forcing him to flee to New York; he also murders Peggy -- despite Sung's attempts to protect her.
The action shifts to the U.S., where Ken is being harassed by the New York mafia who are demanding protection money from him in order to avoid any "accidents" befalling his restaurant business. Meanwhile, Si Lung is keeping a low profile, working in a city church. Unfortunetly, Ko sends some hit men to tie up this "lose end", whiping out the entire congregation in the process. Si Lung loses his mind with grief at the murder of his daughter and friends, and ends up confined to a clinic -- a drooling, gibbering mess -- where he is perminently locked away for his own safty.
Which doesn't stop Ken casually sauntering in off the street and taking Lung out of the place when no one is looking! If anything though, Ken is in even more danger than Si Lung: the mafia blow up his restaurant and then send a gang of gunmen out to hunt him down. Now, desperately running for his life, while also trying to nudge a catatonic Lung back to sanity, Ken proves himself the equal of his gun-slinging brother by slaughtering a plethora of mafia goons on a shabby hotel stairwell. When Ken is shot in the arm and lies injured while their enemies close in around them, it turns out to be the catalyst that brings Si Lung back into the world of the living -- and the two are soon on their way back to Hong Kong to meet up with brothers Kit and Sung for a big showdown with Ko and his ruthless gang.
The plot may be meagre and the emotional scenes are often overplayed and ridiculous, but Woo does manage to wring a few memorable moments out the material: a scene where Kit is ordered to kill his brother in order to prove his loyalty to Ko's gang is genuinely suspenseful, and Sung's showdown with Ko's silent right-hand man (Shing Fu On) provides another heart-stopping moment that is expertly inter-cut with the birth of Sung's first child (which is taking place simultaneously across town). Indeed, it looks as though Sung's relationship with his wife Jackie (Emily Chu) is going to be delt with in a bit more depth than it was previously -- especially in the first half of the film, when Sung is busy "romancing" Peggy in order to gain the trust of Si Lung; but, true to form, she is soon shunted off to hospital to await the birth, while the boys get on with their bloody business. As well as the return of Chow Yun Fat, the film also brings back Kenneth Tsang to reprise his role from the first film, while Shing Fu On also returns, playing another villain (although not the same character as he played in the first film) who actually gets a big climactic face-off with Chow Yan Fat.
But whether the script has that much depth, or if the performances are really up to scratch, let alone how many memorable scenes the film has, are all irrelevant issues in the end: the film is justified by the final twenty minutes of action, which outdoes anything in the original by a long shot. Woo packs everything into this final sequence as the three surviving heroes don the infamous black and white suits that would later be nicked by Mr Tarantino for "Reservoir Dogs", and, armed with machine guns, pistols, grenades, swords and the occasional martial arts move, set about wiping out hundreds of Ko's Yakuza henchmen in one of the most exhilaratingly blood-drenched displays of choreographed violence ever committed to film. Almost certainly this sequence had some influence of the Bride's bloody battle with the Crazy 8s in "Kill Bill", as the trio also have to wade their way through a literal sea of bloodied bodies by the end of the film.
The trasfer used here is not particulary great, especially when compared to Hong Kong Legend's usual fare. It looks to be the same one used on Anchor Bay's U.S. release and features heavy grain consistently throughout most of the running-time. The Cantonese soundtrack is just fine, and there is a woeful English dub included as well for what, I can only assume, must be comedy value. Incidently, quite a lot of the film is in English anyway during the New York section, but in the English dub version, Chow Yun Fat's heavily accented voice is replaced by a terrible American voice actor's.
Extras consist of an animated essay on the "Bloody Trilogy", a twenty-two minute interview with producer Hark Tsui, and a trailer for "A Better Tomorror 3" -- Hark Tsui's self-directed prequel to the first film.
This is not one of John Woo's better films, but the action sequences (and, lets face it, they're the reason we watch a John Woo film) are outstanding, and even the cheesy Eighties synth score can't take away from their raw power. Worth a look.