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Better Tomorrow 2018, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/22/18 12:36:56

"A Lesser 'Tomorrow'"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

What, I ask, is the point of remaking "A Better Tomorrow" without John Woo and Chow Yun-fat? It's admittedly a fine enough crime story that under normal circumstances it could stand a new version that adapts it to a different time or place, but as the movie that paired those two Hong Kong action legends, it's legendary itself, and it's therefore not good enough for a remake to just be competent. You've got to offer more than the same basic material in Mandarin rather than Cantonese and people using cell phones to make it worthwhile.

Instead, it's pretty much the same, maybe sanitized a little. Zhou Kai (Wang Kai) is a sailor who has a profitable sideline in smuggling on the route between Qindao, China and Tokyo, although he and best friend "Mark" Ma Ke (Darren Wang Ta-lu) are basically avoiding customs rather than moving anything truly illegal, which is less than some of their associates want, particularly Cang (Yu Ailei), godson of money man Ha Ge (Lam Suet), but Kai has the list of contacts. Some think it might be handy that Kai's brother Chao (Ma Tianyu) has become a cop, although Chao doesn't know about his brother's sideline and is too straight an arrow to get caught up in it. Unfortunately, the surveillance assignment he's just pulled really has the potential to ruin this family reunion.

Put the 1986 version of this story out of one's mind (either by editing your memory to forget it exists or by simply not having been aware of it before), and you've actually got the skeleton of a decent movie. Screenwriter/director Ding Sheng plays the story out well enough, finding a few details that reinforce each other nicely (the Zhous' father having early-onset dementia makes a nice sort of metaphor for how family members might not really know each other, and also creates a sort of duality when he's caught in the crossfire later on, both innocent victim and bearing the burden of the way he raised his son). One can snicker a bit about how the floor show at a club in Qindao stoically continues performing when a fight breaks out while the one in Tokyo flees in panic, but it's also worth noting that Ding does a fair job of threading the Chinese-film needle where crime doesn't pay but it also has to be appealing and stable enough for people to turn in that direction.

The cast does a fair job with the occasionally-melodramatic words they are given, a pretty good group all around. Wang Kai is quite appealing as his namesake, playing things just gruff and cool enough to feel like a guy who could survive a life of crime while still deluding himself that he can stay away from hard drugs or avoid disappointing his brother. Ma Tianyu plays Chao as more hot and cold, coming off more not-Kai than his own person, although his performance perks up when he gets to cut loose in rage later on, especially in the action scenes where it becomes an expression of his anger rather than just professionally hitting marks (both for Ma the actor and Chao the cop). Darren Wang, the guy playing Mark, is done no favors early on by having to live up to Chow, especially with a gag that basically says some background character is trying to be as cool as that Mark and Wang's version is kind of a dork in comparison. He's actually not bad in the part, and on its own, his desperate loyalty and not-quite-awkward, not-quite-smooth physicality would impress - some parts just put a target on the actor's back. The villains have things a bit easier - Yu Ailei makes Cang impressively vicious while not shedding the insecurity present in his introduction, and Lam Suet makes a friendly crime boss who navigates the just-grandiose-enough tendency to refer to himself in both the first and third person with aplomb.

The big disappointment, almost inevitably, is that the action is pretty terrible. It's kind of shocking, given the good work Ding has done with Jackie Chan, but he seems to have no idea how to shoot and cut a good fight here, often trying to make up for the seeming sloppiness with volume, but with just one or two exceptions, it's hard to tell where anybody ever is in relation to each other, and the big final confrontation is filled with things exploding to no apparent purpose and a sequence where it seems to alternate from one shot to the next whether two characters are close and aware of each other or further apart. There are other, similarly baffling moves, like an electric-guitar underscore that just completely fails to match the tempo to a fight that is largely underwater. These guys should be a lot better at this.

Look, I know the 1986 "A Better Tomorrow" (a remake itself) is no holy text; I snickered at Woo's flourishes when I first saw it and the folks involved quickly rode it into the ground with a sequel, a prequel, and a spin-off. Still, a good remake has some reason for existing beyond just name recognition, but there's no reason to watch this one with the other available.

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