Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week, as the galaxy’s most popular smuggler returns to the big screen in Solo: A Star Wars Story, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite movies about charismatic crooks and cons.
John Woo didn’t invent the concepts of manly camaraderie or honor among thieves, but he brought them to new, operatic heights in his breakthrough 1986 action film A Better Tomorrow. A surprise mega-hit across Asia, the film made Woo’s reputation as an action director and set the template for what would become known as the “heroic bloodshed” action subgenre. (It also serves as a template for Woo’s developing visual style, using emotionally resonant lighting and billowing curtains in ways that would become dramatically heightened in 1989’s The Killer.) In heroic bloodshed films—a specialty of Woo and his countryman Ringo Lam that influenced American auteurs like Quentin Tarantino in the ’90s—criminals aren’t just sympathetic; they can be the most ethical guys in the room, bound by a sense of loyalty and personal honor that transcends the law. It’s an individualistic ethos, pitting a moral protagonist against a corrupt system, whether that individual is an upstanding cop or an honest thief.
A Better Tomorrow has both, and in the same family. Ti Lung stars as Sung Tse-Ho, a middle-management type in the Hong Kong Triad who specializes in counterfeiting American money. In the film’s extended opening sequence, a botched deal lands Ho in a Taiwanese prison; this comes as a shock to his brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), a newbie cop from whom Ho had previously hid his true occupation. Three years later, Ho is released from jail and returns home to Hong Kong, determined to start over as a law-abiding citizen. Shing (Waise Lee), the new leader of Ho’s old gang, won’t let him go so easily, though. And his embittered little brother, who’s now leading a police investigation into Shing’s illegal activities, is similarly reluctant to take him back.
Amid the changing loyalties in the film, the one bond that is never so much as tested is the one between Ho and his best friend, Mark (Chow Yun-fat). Chow turns in one of the great scene-stealing performances in cinema history in A Better Tomorrow, a breakout role that inspired Hong Kong’s disaffected youth to chew on matchsticks and don Mark’s signature long trench coat—a style colloquially referred to in Cantonese as a “Mark gor lau,” or a “brother Mark coat”—by the thousands. We first meet Mark hanging out on a corner, chowing down on street food as he waits for a ride to work; within five minutes of his introduction, he’s lighting a cigarette with a fake $100 bill. Chow is pure charisma in the role, playing a career criminal whose irreverent bad-boy attitude serves as cover for a certain moral uprightness, not unlike Harrison Ford’s Han Solo in the Star Wars movies.
Mark’s ambush of the Taiwanese gang that screwed over his friend at the end of the prologue is one of the film’s most stylish sequences, playing up the emotion of his reckless selflessness with dramatic slow-motion over a melodramatic Cantonese pop song. As the gang drinks and carouses over dinner, the door of its private dining room slides open ever so slowly, revealing Chow standing there with a pistol in each hand, like a gunfighter from the mythical Old West. That’s when the film speeds back up, the spell broken under Woo’s signature deluge of bullets until transitioning back to slow-motion as Mark takes a bullet in the leg for his friend. Even the camera seems to know who the real star of this movie is.
Availability: The out-of-print DVD of A Better Tomorrow can be bought used for a reasonable price or obtained from your local video store/library. It can also be rented on Amazon Prime, albeit in a dubbed version.