Return to a Better Tomorrow

Reviewed by Jay Wassmer

Despite the title, this is not a sequel to the influential John Woo/Tsui Hark A Better Tomorrow series. This is director Wong Jingís belated attempt at cashing in on said series. Long after the heroic bloodshed film had seen its heyday along comes Wong trying to revive it with some fresh young talent, namely Ekin Cheng and Lau Ching Wan along with the ever-present (at least in Wong Jing films) Chingmy Yau.

This movie can be seen as slightly important from an historical viewpoint, it certainly succeeded in helping nail the coffin shut on the heroic bloodshed cycle, and it also inadvertently went miles toward helping usher in the Young & Dangerous films that would follow. Wong Jing would later produce a few of the Young & Dangerous pictures including the first in the series (not to mention directing/producing a few subsequent knock-offs), while Ekin Cheng would make an even bigger name for himself as the star of that series.

Return to a Better Tomorrow is a fairly typical story of Triad highs and lows. Ekin Cheng plays an up and coming Triad leader and Lau Ching Wan is a bumbling new recruit who idolizes his boss. The film opens with a daring attack on a rival gang leader staged with borrowed Ringo Lam style in a movie house drenched with bluish light and rock video cinematography (certainly one of the filmís more exciting sequences). As the target attempts a narrow escape itís Lau that bravely stops him, using the always-dangerous fake gun trick. Although Lau is successful in wounding the enemy itís ultimately Ekin who saves the day, but Lauís bravery doesnít go unnoticed and heís rewarded with both his bossesí respect and friendship.

Plot twists arise with the introduction of Chengís boss (Ben Lam), a drunken and seemingly harmless guy making a name for himself in the underworld by hiding in the shadow of his more successful underling. If heís not wooing girls heís delivering embarrassingly bad karaoke renditions of canto-pop tunes. But, Cheng being the Triad leader with a heart of gold treats his big brother with the respect heís due (even if the audience canít figure out why heís due even that).

After a couple of plot twists and turns (in typical Wong Jing style the film is padded out to reach a suitable feature length), we discover that both the OCTB and Interpol are quickly building a case against Cheng and his apparent drug trafficking business, something a good-guy Triad like Cheng would never do, in other words someone is framing our golden boy gangster. But, before we can figure out who the dirty culprit of said frame-job is the law catches our boy red-handed with the incriminating goods planted in his headquarters.

Cheng is placed under arrest and just as things look really grim in swoops a bleach-blond psycho named Holland Boy (Ngai Sing). Holland Boy lays waste to a bunch of police and frees Cheng, whoís not too happy with Holland Boyís lethal tactics. We find out that the bleach-bond mystery man was sent by Chengís less than reliable boss to help him escape and get him over the border to the mainland where he can hide out till things blow over.
Time to cut ahead, Cheng joins Holland Boy on a less than spectacular vacation in the mainland, just to discover that the dope-dealer is really his boss and itís elimination time. Okay, so the bottle-blond psycho was sent to kill, quick solution jam a beer bottle in a very painful way down his psychotic throat and make a break for it. I do have one question here; Cheng told Lau to make sure the target is dead, so why not follow his own advice? That said, obviously the bleach-blond psycho still lives. We cut back to Hong Kong, where Holland Boy is back in time to help his leader torture Chengís girlfriend played by Wong Jing regular Chingmy Yau.

After a couple years pass we find out that Lau is now in charge and is enjoying much of the same success that Cheng once had. Michael Wong plays one of Lauís boys, whose father (Paul Chun Pui) owns a restaurant that recently hired an illegal immigrant from the mainland (Cheng). The restaurant plays host to some excitement one day as some rival Triad boys attempt to cause some trouble for Wong and his father, time for Cheng to kick into his hero mode and save the day. The low-level Triad rivals are obviously insulted and later kidnap Wong to get their revenge.

Wongís father is very upset and needs Lauís help to get his son back. Cheng and Wongís dad pay a visit to Lau. As soon as Lau sees Cheng a cheerful reunion ensues. Having established that Lau was not involved in Chengís down-fall, the two pledge their devotion to one another and decide to seek revenge on their drug dealing boss.

Return To A Better Tomorrow suffers from several problems, not the least of which is a very derivative script. Wong Jing is obviously trying to join the ranks of John Woo and Ringo Lam with this gangland opus. But, his lack of originality proves how special the filmmakers heís imitating really are.

In a film like this, casting is as important as direction, and this is one misguided cast. Lau has proven to be a versatile and enjoyable actor in other films, but here heís wooden and lifeless (a real shame). Michael Wong is always wooden and having seen him in a number of English speaking roles I no longer believe itís the language barrier, the boy simply isnít a very good actor. Cheng is always used as eye-candy for the ladies and sometimes he delivers a nugget of presence here, but his character is more a series of clichés than a real person.  Appearing also are James Wong as Ekinís lawyer and Parkman Wong as the fair-minded cop.

In the end, Return to a Better Tomorrow is a rehash of familiar themes with a lack of originality. Itís entertaining and youíre bound to enjoy as you watch, but do yourself a favor and donít dwell on it after viewing. This is a film that Iíd recommend watching with a few buddies on a night of beers and popcorn, the action is fun, but the movie is nothing spectacular.

My rating for this film: 6.0