I've often joked that you cannot put weight in calling yourself a man unless you have seen at least one John Woo film. His early work especially was filled with epic gunfights, explosions, and just all around awe-inspiring action sequences. The only downside is that many of his older films featuring Chow Yun Fat all feel so similar that it's really difficult to distinguish one from another. The story lines are almost exactly the same and many of the same cast members are utilized in each film. It has literally been years since I've seen the original A Better Tomorrow. I was mostly hoping for an upgrade of sorts from Dragon Dynasty since their 2-disc and Blu-ray releases of classic foreign cinema are always top notch. Nevertheless, I do remember holding both the original film and sequel in high regard. I wasn't even aware a Korean remake was on the cards until I received an email informing me of the DVD and Blu-ray details. Given the amount of remakes that hit US shores at such a quickened pace, I was a bit weary of giving this film a chance. But then I began to realize how much I love Korean film and came to notice that John Woo produced the film. So A Better Tomorrow was given its proper chance and folks, maybe it's because I haven't seen the 1986 version in so long but this remake almost seems as worthy as the original film.
Before I get ahead of myself, I love John Woo's film. I want to make that point crystal clear. A Better Tomorrow features some of the most influential action sequences not only of the 1980s, but perhaps of all time. The remake takes a bit of a different route and is more story-driven. There are only a handful of action sequences, but they feel strategically placed and mean a bit more in the long run. Character development is key. The action is only there to compliment the drama. While the original theme, location, and character names may have been changed, much of the impact of what these characters are going through is still rather strong. The majority of the film is carried by the brothers Hyuk (Jin-mo Ju) and Chul (Kang-woo Kim) and their relationship or lack thereof. Hyuk abandoned Chul and his mother years ago. With their mother now dead, Chul seeks revenge and only wants to see his brother dead while Hyuk just wants Chul to be a part of his life. Hyuk is a policeman who illegally deals guns on the side. His partner Young-chun (Seung-heon Song) is more than likely the coolest guy you've ever come across while Tae Min (Han Sun Jo) is the lackey who dreams of becoming a gangster boss.
The film looks stunning. It's beautifully shot and features some amazingly vibrant colors along with some really impressive lighting. The Young-chun gun scene with the arms dealers from Thailand near the beginning of the film is where things begin to get interesting. The interrogation scene where the brothers meet for the first time after many years of separation show how powerful the performances of Jin-Mo Ju and Kang-woo Kim are going to become. But the massage parlor scene with Young-chun is where the film begins to show its first signs of John Woo influence. While the action scenes are fewer, everything seems to be riding on the final gunfight which is pretty extraordinary. The relationship between the two brothers is what drives the movie forward, but the way Young-chun tries to make himself part of that equation and the monster Tae Min becomes is what makes the film at least a little special.
The few reviews I'm seeing online of this film are saying things like it lacks the very important theme of the John Woo film and that there isn't as much action. There's also a lack of female roles, which I agree with. This version of A Better Tomorrow is good for different reasons than its predecessor. I feel like the performances were much stronger in the remake and that the story, even though it deviated quite a bit from John Woo's version, took a front seat rather than the action. The Korean remake is slower and not quite as violent. My only complaint falls onto the ending, which is way too anticlimactic.
A Better Tomorrow is not the same movie it's labeled as remaking and that's a good thing. Strong performances and fewer action sequences help pave the way for more meaningful character development and a story with a bit more of an impact. Maybe I'm biased because I love depressing films, but A Better Tomorrow is well worth giving a chance if you can settle with the fact that it's different and altered from the source material; arguably not for the better but enjoyable in a contrasting way.
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