A Better Tomorrow -- Film Review

A mediocre remake stunted by the tall order of the original.

John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow" is not about gangs or guns, but all about the swish of an Italian coat, the dandy way a toothpick is chewed, and the graceful arc in which its heroes (not protagonists) cock their guns.

None of these can be found in Song Hae-song's Korean remake, executive produced by Woo and his regular partner Terence Chang. In Korea, where the 1986 version has TV re-runs as ritualistically as "The Sound of Music" is aired during Christmas, under-performing box office is said to be accompanied by mobs of angry bloggers slamming it online.

To be fair, the production is on the money, with plenty of bombastic action balanced by some dramatic heft. But the film raised the bar to the skies by brandishing itself as a remake of a classic, without understanding what makes the original click -- namely pose and self-parody. The film should be judged less harshly abroad, as the four dashing leads and its fiery Korean brand of machismo have enough allure in most Asian markets.

For the rest, the screenplay follows the original story fairly closely, but with the love subplot taken out. The main stage has been moved from Hong Kong to Busan, which gains in gritty hardboiled atmosphere as a hub for illegal trafficking. The pivotal early scenes which define the heroines' stances and determine their fates are shifted to Thailand. Since locations are unexciting and the heroes can't wear coats in the sweltering heat; thus making the surprise of betrayal and climax of revenge are slow to warm up.

The conflict between the original's gangster brother and his policeman younger brother is intensified by making the brothers, Hyuk (Joo Jin-mo) and Chul (Kim Gang-woo), North Korean defectors.

The plot of "A Better Tomorrow" is a potboiler to begin with. What elevated it is Woo's chivalric ideal of heroism and the iconic gestures or poses that go with it. His gun fights are described as "balletic" because they are as formalistic as duels. In the remake, the men just bash each other to a bloody pulp. Style is what's lacking in overall proceedings.

Several action setpieces take place in huge spaces, deploying hundreds of extras but the larger their scale, the messier the choreography. The cast scurry all over the place and shots are fired aimlessly. And if in doubt, the filmmaker stages an explosion.

The rift between guilt-ridden Hyuk and self-righteous Chul caused by the former's abandonment of the latter, takes precedence over Hyuk' bonding with fellow gangster Young-chun (Song Seung-heon). Joo and Kim play their roles in earnest, externalizing the male rivalry that was submerged in the original, and giving the characters more complexity. Complex is the last thing in the characterization of Young-chun, the man of honor who got crippled trying to avenge Hyuk's betrayal by their junior Tae-min (Jo Han-sun). Song has Chow Yun-fat's cockiness, but not his non-chalant charm. With his odd mixture of goofball, Machiavellian and psychopath, Tae-min becomes the most flamboyant but least formidable role.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival, Special Screenings
Sales: CJ Entertainment Inc.
Production: Formula Entertainment presents in association with CJ Entertainment/ Michigan Venture Capital a Fingerprint production in association with Lion Rock Productions/Fortune Star Entertainment
Cast: Joo Jin-mo, Song Seung-heon, Kim Gang-woo, Jo Han-sun
Director: Song Hae-song
Screenwriters: Kim Hyo-seok, Lee Taek-kyung, Choi Geun-mo, Kim Hae-gon
Produced by: Park Hyung-jun, Daisuke "Dais" Miyachi
Executive producers: John Woo, Terence Chang, Daniel Chun-on Cheung, Lim Byeong-woo, Peter Poon, David Matsumoto
Director of photography: Kang Seung-gi
Production designer: Yang Hong-sam
Costume designer: Kim Jung-won
Music: Lee Jae-jin
Editor: Park Gok-ji
No rating, 124 minutes