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John Woo's hyper-stylized, guns-blazing remake of The Story of a Discharged Prisoner became a blockbuster hit, made star Chow Yun Fat into a global icon of cool, and made "heroic bloodshed" the new byword of Hong Kong action cinema.
John Woo was a journeyman Hong Kong director for the first eighteen years of his directing career, working in an array of genres without ever truly making his mark. But when he loosely remade The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (screening on July 5) as A Better Tomorrow, he caused a sensation: the film became a blockbuster hit, made Chow Yun Fat into a global icon of cool, and helped break non-kung fu Hong Kong action cinema in the West. High-ranking triad member Sung Tse-ho (former Shaw Brothers star Ti Lung) is imprisoned after a deal goes sour, while his best friend and triad enforcer Mark Lee (Chow Yun Fat) is crippled in a shootout. Released from prison three years later, Sung tries to reconnect with his straight-arrow police-officer brother Kit (Leslie Cheung), but is bitterly rebuffed. Harassed by his former subordinate, who is now the head of the triad, Sung eventually reconnects with Mark for some blazing and bloody score-settling. Woo's distinctive brand of "heroic bloodshed" — wildly over-the-top and intricately choreographed gunplay, super-cool antihero swagger, heightened and hilariously self-serious stories of macho redemption — emerges fully formed here, and while Woo would scale even more operatic heights with The Killer and Hard Boiled, this is perhaps the purest expression of his signature style.