The original "A Better Tomorrow" told the story of Ho Tese Sung (Lung Ti) and Kit Sung (Leslie Cheung), 2 brothers on opposite sides of the law. After much conflict, they put their differences behind them, teamed up with Ho's gangster friend Mark (Chow Yun Fat) and wages one final, bloody war against the crime syndicate. They won the battle, but at what cost? Kit quickly climbed the ranks of the police force, Ho went to jail and Mark went to the morgue. Plus, at the start of the sequel we learn that the syndicate is alive and well and continuing their counterfeiting schemes.
Si Lung (Dean Shek) is a millionaire who runs a shipping yard, but what's his connection to the syndicate? That's what Kit is trying to find out. He's going undercover and dating Lung's daughter to do his job. On the other hand, Ho is approached by the police and reluctantly uses his remaining mob ties to infiltrate the syndicate, but only to keep an eye on his younger brother. This plan soon falls apart when Lung is framed for murder by one of his business associates. He's on the lam and he goes to hide in New York, which kinds of throws a monkey wrench in to Kit's plans. He's about to get a new assignment when Lung's daughter is murdered. Now it's personal and Kit tries to infiltrate the syndicate along side his brother in a personal search for retribution.
Meanwhile, Lung is getting along well in New York. He's hiding out at a church and helping out the parish in whatever way he can. Of course, this soon turns to shit when most of the parish is gunned down in an attempt on his life. This drives him insane and her turns in to your average institutionalized drooling nutcase.
Enter Ken (Chow Yun Fat), Mark's previously unmentioned, long lost identical twin brother. He owns a Chinese food restaurant that has been targeted by the New York mafia. One day he just happens to be strolling by the neighborhood asylum and sees his Uncle Lung and breaks him out with extreme ease. This coincidence is made all the more remarkable by the fact Ken hasn't seen his uncle in 10 years. Ken tries to restore his Uncle's sanity but is only successful when he's exposed to extended periods of gunfire during a spectacular shootout that is a tribute to "Taxi Driver". With Lung's mind back to normal and focused on revenge, they head back to Hong Kong, meet up with the Sung brothers and start making plans to take down the syndicate. It's going to be a long, bloody battle and not all of them will live to truly see a better tomorrow.
"A Better Tomorrow" was one of the most popular films in Hong Kong history and it made both Chow Yun Fat and John Woo's careers. Naturally, a sequel would mean big business, but Woo was hesitant to agree. He finally signed on the dotted line under the assumption that it would be a prequel set in Vietnam. Obviously this didn't happen and Woo became disillusioned and never worked with his producer, Tsui Hark, again. Woo has said that "A Better Tomorrow 2" is his least favourite film. Incidentally, Hark went on to direct "A Better Tomorrow 3" which did use the Vietnam idea.
While I agree that this isn't his best film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's still far better than any of his American work. The film's main failing is that it has to follow the original film. The original was a tragic story of brotherhood and male bonding. The action is secondary and it helps drive the story forward. On the other hand, the sequel is the story of our protagonists constantly getting screwed over until they get their bloody revenge. At times the story just seems to be there to lead you from action scene to action scene. As you can tell from the summary, the plot is needlessly complex and at times hard to follow. The first time I saw the movie it was the dubbed version, so that may have played a part. The ending is far less ambiguous when subtitled, so I'm guessing the rest is easier to follow that way too. But when compared to the straightforward original, the sequel is practically a Lynch film.
My other main problem with the film is the Ken character. In the first film, Mark was the coolest guy this side of Clint Eastwood. The suit/sunglasses/trench coat look was all the rage and is obviously a big influence for Quentin Tarintino. Let's not forget about the trademark 9mm in each hand that was popularized in one of the most spectacular shootouts of all time. Mark was clearly the most popular character, so it's a shame that they killed him off. Of course, he had to be brought back for the sequel. Now, I used to read a whole lot of comic books so I've seen some really lame resurrections, but the twin brother twist was a little too much for me. Plus, Ken is the exact same character as his brother. The only real difference is that Ken wears his brother's old trench coat that has gained about 20 bullet holes since the climax of the last movie. Oh, and Ken uses grenades too. What makes it all the more ridiculous is that Ken is an even better gunfighter than his brother. Yes, the cook is a better shot than a gangster. Oh well, at least Chow Yun Fat is charismatic as ever.
However, there is a whole lot to love about "A Better Tomorrow 2". Although the film does little to develop them, the main characters are great. The cast is uniformly excellent and brings these creations to life. Heroes are only as good as the villains they face and the movie has a great hive full of scum and villainy. As usual, Woo makes the second in command a real badass and he overshadows the boss. I wasn't the biggest fan of the plot, but it is serviceable and there are some great moments in there like Woo's most poignant death scene.
Oh yeah, the action in absolutely incredible. The "Taxi Driver" inspired scene would be a fine climax to just about any other film, but here it's just a footnote. Woo fans will notice one part that's a prototype for the railing slide from 'Hard Boiled". The climatic shoot out is something that's not easily put in to words. I've seen the entire film only twice, but I've watched the last 20 minutes a dozen times. It has machine guns, grenades, blood stained walls, kung fu, samurai swords and a couple hundred of the dumbest goons you'll ever see. Aside from all the glorious carnage, there is also a great standoff that second only to the end of "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly". This is an action movie, so it's important to have exhilarating battles. Woo comes through in spades.
The DVD is solid, but unspectacular. The video is looks good, except for some mild print damage. You have the option of listening to the dubbed version or the original Cantonese track with optional subtitles. It's nice, but there's no reason to even touch the horrible dubbed version. You also have talent bios and the international and Hong Kong trailers. The Hong Kong trailer only uses footage from the first film, so it serves as a good recap. So, as you can see, the DVD isn't exactly packed with features, but it will do until Anchor Bay puts out another dozen editions to squeeze every last cent out of your wallet.