A Better Tomorrow 2018
China, 2018, colour, 2.35:1, 114 mins.
Director: Ding Sheng 丁晟.
Pointless retooling of the 1986 Hong Kong classic is just an average crime drama, devoid of any magic.
Qindao city, northern China, the present day. Zhou Chao (Ma Tianyu) is a young detective in the coastal city’s police force; unknown to him, his elder brother, Zhou Kai (Wang Kai), is a professional smuggler along with his sidekick Ma Ke (Wang Dalu). For the past two years Zhou Kai has been dealing personally with suppliers in Japan. His latest consignment, from a Tokyo yakuza called Okamura (Nakano Yuta), is almost intercepted by China’s customs patrol, from which Zhou Kai and Ma Ke narrowly escape, entering the city through old military tunnels. Zhou Kai and Zhou Chao visit their father (Shi Liang) in hospital but he fails to recognise them due to his growing Alzheimer’s. At a dinner thrown by local crimelord Ha (Lin Xue), an attempt is made to get Zhou Kai to share his Japanese contacts so everyone can profit; Zhou Kai, however, has always operated under strict rules of no drugs or foreign goods. Ha asks him to help out with a deal being handled by an associate from the countryside, Cang (Yu Ailei); when that goes wrong, a gunfight breaks out, and Zhou Kai and Cang escape via the old military tunnels. Zhou Chao, who’s by chance in the same restaurant, gives chase and shoots Zhou Kai, not realising who he is. Badly wounded, Zhou Kai gives himself up. Meanwhile, the brothers’ father is killed when one of Ha’s men searches his house for a backup copy of Zhou Kai’s Japanese contacts. Three days later, Ma Ke settles scores in Tokyo over who betrayed their last shipment, but in the gun battle is wounded in the leg. Three months later, with Zhou Kai already in prison, Zhou Chao tells Ma Ke not to get mixed up with his elder brother again. Six months later Zhou Chao is decorated for his work in the drugs squad. Two and a half years later Zhou Kai is released from prison; Zhou Chao meets him and tells him to leave the city for ever, blaming him for their father’s death. Zhou Kai tracks down the now-lame Ma Ke, who is doing menial jobs in the docks, and tells him he’s going straight. But then Cang, who has since gone into the drugs business for himself, approaches Zhou Kai to get Zhou Chao off his back.
File A Better Tomorrow 2018 英雄本色2018 under “remakes that didn’t need to be remade”. That’s a pity, as Mainland director/co-writer Ding Sheng 丁晟, 47, has a fine record for original, slightly quirky action-dramas, especially when – as in The Underdog Knight 硬汉 (2008), He-Man 硬汉2 奉陪到底 (2011) and Saving Mr. Wu 解救吾先生 (2015) – he’s not making Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan] vehicles. (Cheng’s Beijing Sparkle Roll Media is among the financers but the Hong Kong superstar doesn’t appear on screen, despite getting a thankyou in the end credits.) Sticking fairly closely to the plot of the 1986 Hong Kong classic (see poster, left) about two brothers on opposite sides of the law, but moving the story to present-day northern China (plus bits in Japan), Ding’s film is pointless as a remake and only average as a crime drama. It’s also doubly disappointing coming after Railroad Tigers 铁道飞虎 (2016), in which Ding managed to rise above the constraints of a Cheng vehicle to produce a genuinely engaging slice of entertainment.
“Engaging” is hardly a word that applies to ABT2018, whose faults, as well as a workaday, uninvolving script, include weak casting in many of the key roles. As the elder criminal brother – played by Di Long 狄龙 in the 1986 film – Mainland actor-singer Wang Kai 王凯, 35, who was good as the smooth sharpshooter in Tigers, has a certain physical stature but little personality here, playing the role with the same blankness as his physics professor in The Devotion of Suspect X 嫌疑人X的献身 (2017). As his younger cop brother, Mainland actor-singer Ma Tianyu 马天宇, 31, has the same baby-faced looks as the 1986’s Zhang Guorong 张国荣 [Leslie Cheung] but only half the charisma and even less acting ability. His later scenes playing tough are especially unbelievable and fraternal chemistry between the two is negligible. A much stronger presence is Wang Dalu 王大陆 (Our Times 我的少女时代, 2015; Legend of the Naga Pearls 鲛珠传, 2017) as the criminal brother’s sidekick (here made a Taiwanese to explain his accent), though his cheeky-chappie persona, like a bright-eyed, less mumbly Chen Bolin 陈柏霖, seems out of place here and fails to hijack the film in the way Zhou Runfa 周润发 [Chow Yun-fat] did the original.
Stealing the acting stakes in the second half is Mainland character actor Yu Ailei 余皑磊 (the smartest of the captors in Saving Mr. Wu), whose grinning villain is well up to the standard of the 1986’s Li Zixiong 李子雄 [Waise Lee]. Among other roles, Hong Kong veteran Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet] clocks in as a crafty gang leader. In a very male-centred movie, generally reliable Mainland actress Li Meng 李梦 (Young Love Lost 少年巴比伦, 2015; Never Gone 致青春•原来你还在这里, 2016; Edge of Innocence 夏天十九岁的肖像, 2017) makes the most impression as the criminal brother’s slutty girlfriend.
All that aside, what Ding has failed to provide is a convincing reason to remake an accepted classic. (A 2010 South Korean remake, A Better Tomorrow 무적자, directed by Song Hae-seong 송해성 | 宋海星 [see poster, left], had the same problem, despite being darker and full of Korean machismo and male bonding.) The original production, directed by Wu Yusen 吴宇森 [John Woo], captured an era (the mid-1980s) and genre (the Hong Kong triad movie) with a visual panache and existing star system that simply can’t be replicated nowadays. That just leaves the basic plot of two brothers on opposite sides of the fence, inspired by an earlier Hong Kong movie (The Brothers 差人大佬搏命仔, 1979) that was itself inspired by Bollywood film Deewaar (1975), which Ding and co-writer Xu Yang 许阳 (from TV drama) fail to develop with any feeling or sense of escalating passion. Despite much talk of brotherhood and heroism, it all sounds unconvincing in this cast’s mouths.
What is left is an average crime drama that has Ding’s trademark grittiness (courtesy regular d.p. Ding Yu 丁豫) with touches of rough poetry (lots of shots of the sea and flying gulls) and references to the original (a poster in a bar, Zhang’s iconic song In the Sentimental Past 当年情, a jokey cameo as a prisoner by Hong Kong’s Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang], Wang’s character sliding backwards down some stairs all guns blazing) that have nothing to do with anything. Despite locating the story in his hometown of Qingdao (here called “Qindao” 琴岛), a city he’s already made striking use of in The Underdog Knight and He-Man, Ding doesn’t use it in any memorable way, apart from a few scenes in the German-built military tunnels. Even the action, staged by Jackie Chan’s Stunt Team member Han Guanhua 韩冠华, is ordinary and often confusingly edited by Ding himself. On top of that is a music score that’s all over the place, swinging between gentle orchestral to grinding rock and even a male choir during the final dockside shootout.
Mainland box office was a nothing RMB63 million. The Chinese title literally means “The True Colour of Heroes”, which was originally borrowed by Wu from the 1967 Hong Kong drama Story of a Discharged Prisoner 英雄本色 (aka Upright Repenter, see poster, left) directed by the late Long Gang 龙刚 and starring Xie Xian 谢贤 [Patrick Tse], whose plot was quite different.
Presented by Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism (CN), Chongqing Shuimu Chengde Culture Industry Equity Investment Fund Partnership (CN), Beijing Sparkle Roll Media (CN), Kuzai (Shanghai) Culture Communication (CN).
Script: Ding Sheng, Xu Yang. Story planning: Jia Zhijie [Alex Jia]. Photography: Ding Yu. Editing: Ding Sheng. Music: Komail Shayan. Art direction: Feng Ligang. Costume design: Cao Yangui. Styling: Wang Yi. Sound: Chen Chen. Action: Han Guanhua. Car stunts: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law].
Cast: Wang Kai (Zhou Kai), Ma Tianyu (Zhou Chao), Wang Dalu (Ma Ke), Yu Ailei (Cang), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Ha), Wu Yue (Pijin/Rubber Band, Ha’s godson), Li Mincheng (Guo, drug-squad chief), Li Meng (Meilin, Zhou Kai’s girlfriend), Zhang Yishang (Lulu, Zhou Chao’s girlfriend), Nakano Yuta (Okamura, Japanese yakuza), Shi Liang (Zhou, brothers’ father), Jiang Peiyao (Yangyang, Ma Ke’s girlfriend), Gong Chengqi (Cheng, police captain), Jia Chenfei (Quanzi, detective), Zhaka (Da Hei), Sang Ping (Wei, Ha’s enforcer), Su Xin (Xiaozhi), Han Han (driver), Ning Hao (drinker), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (prisoner D8145), Guo Xiaoran (boat captain), Song Ge (Song, police chief), Ding Sheng (taxi driver).
Release: China, 18 Jan 2018.