Thursday, November 17, 2011

Johnnie To's A Hero Never Dies Review

The following thoughts on A Hero never dies contains some spoilers, so please watch the movie first before reading this. You have been warned.

Produced by Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai and directed by Johnnie To, A Hero never dies is one of the most divisive of all Johnnie To's crime films, it polarises opinion of not only Hong Kong cinema enthusiasts but also ardent fans of Milkyway image. It isn't hard to see why, the film is an overwhelming mixture of Sergio Leone tribute, blackly comedic or even parodic heroic bloodshed, deadly serious melodrama and meditation on legend and myth, talk about having your cake and eating it!

For many audiences the mix just doesn't work but the film has a special place for me, which is why this blog is named after it. I love just how far over the top the film goes, and if you stick with it hard enough it comes right back around to be really affecting.

A Hero never dies stars Leon Lai as Jack and Lau Ching Wan as Martin, they play the right hand men of gang bosses Yam and Fong played by Henry Fong and Yen Shi Kwan respectively. Despite being on opposite sides they have a grudging respect that could almost, if they weren't always trying to kill each other, be called a friendship. Yam and Fong's gangs have been waging war for the past year, with many casualties on both sides, their men led by Jack and Martin have vowed to fight to the death, until only one gang remains victorious. A years worth of death and destruction are rendered worthless when the bosses enter a business partnership, leaving Jack and Martin betrayed and left for dead.
Yam and Fong try to erase all reminders of the men that served them so well, leaving Jack and Martin's girlfriends to inspire them to take revenge both for themselves and their dead brothers.

I think of A Hero never dies as being like Kurosawa's Yojimbo or Leone's A Fistful of dollars, but where Mifune's Ronin or Eastwood's Man with no name never actually stay and intervene in the town's affairs, leaving the two warring sides to fight it out between themselves. Yam and Fong, with input from "The General", tired of all the killing, settle for a share of the spoils, for the quiet life, without any thought of the impact on the lives of all the men and their families who have fought to the death for them.

The movie opens on the Saxophone bar, a place very important for the rest of the movie. The camera roams through the bar to settle on a bottle of wine with a label around it's neck that says Jack. During this scene we are introduced to the Raymond Wong score for the film, which uses the Japanese song Sukiyaki as a motif throughout the running time, this is the first nod towards the film's debt to Sergio Leone as the score sounds almost like a Hong Kong Morricone soundtrack.

The Leone/Morricone musical inspiration continues into the introduction of Leon Lai's Jack. Boss Yam having gone to visit a fortune teller, is horrified as Jack shoots the teller in the foot, as an example to his boss that he doesn't need him to make his decisions for him. The music surges upwards on the soundtrack as Jack and his boys take a piss against the palm trees. Love Lam Suet in this scene, when he realises Jack is unzipping his trousers and he decides to copy him, it's a very funny reaction.

Lau Ching Wan's Martin is introduced through a laser guided sight on a rifle aimed at Jack's head. Jack is retrieving the severed head of one of Martin's men to respectfully reunite it with its body, he smokes a cigarette, still with the sight to his head, and we know Martin isn't going to shoot him here, not like this. Immediately you're left with a feeling their relationship will be similar to the one in John Woo's The Killer between Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee. It isn't quite as simple as that though as in the very next scene we see Jack in Martin's apartment as he shoots it all to hell, I don't remember Danny Lee doing that in The Killer! While the idea is similar, here it's taken to the extreme.

Jack and Martin, as in the relationship mentioned above are two sides of the same coin or yin and yang to each other if you prefer, while Jack is introspective and dresses down, Martin is loud in both personality and wardrobe, dressing like some sort of pimp cowboy and always chewing on a huge cigar.  While both men have differences, ethically they feel exactly the same about their profession, with their men and bosses being what is important to them, above even their own lives and women.

Wong Tin Lam has a small but memorable role as the go between for Jack and Martin, being threatened with death if he fails to remember every word of the insults they trade through him, a favourite exchange of mine being Jack's "Tell Martin to stick his shit face into his asshole" and Martin's retort of "I'm gonna crack his mother's ass with a bat".

This first section of A Hero never dies is very funny, we get the usual heroic bloodshed tropes introduced but then deconstructed and exaggerated until twisted into something far beyond what we have seen before. Usually this type of movie is quite earnest and mostly humour free, not the case here at all, and its not finished yet as the next sequence at the Saxophone bar is even more outrageous with Jack and Martin ramming their cars into each other outside, before entering the bar for a wine tasting, which quickly turns into more testosterone driven competition. As a live band belt out Sukiyaki the two men take turns to destroy glasses of each others wine, using evermore elaborate coin tosses from increasingly impossible angles. This particular scene is where many people lose patience with the film, which is unfortunate as its a really fun scene, ridiculous yes, but very amusing. Its another nod to Sergio Leone as it reminded me of the hat shooting sequence between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in For a few dollars more.

It is during the bar scene that we are introduced to Jack and Martin's girlfriends played by Yoyo Mung and Fiona Leung, two of the most important characters in the movie. Fiona quickly shows her strength of character by taming Martin's temper, when he puts the bartender in an impossible position and threatens to kill him. Fiona takes control and the bottle of wine that we saw at the beginning has the label placed on it and is put on the shelf.

Martin is given the order to kill boss Yam, and goes to where he is hiding out. While there he visits the same fortune teller as Jack did and noticing the wound in the teller's foot, Martin follows Jack's lead and shoots him in the other one. He and his men then piss against the same trees, marking the territory like animals. Lau Ching Wan is great here, playing the absurdity to perfection, a special mention here for Martin's white suit and hat together with purple shirt in this scene, very stylish!

From here A Hero never dies takes a seriously dark turn into a baroque nightmare of death and destruction, after the fun of the first half the movie gets right down to exposing its black heart. Jack organises his men to protect boss Yam in the motel they are staying in, from the incoming Martin and his team, a really tense and exciting shoot out ensues with men from both sides falling rapidly. Martin enters the fray in a sequence of iconic shots of Lau Ching Wan coming out of the rain in his cowboy hat with gun blazing. In the panic boss Yam shoots one of his own men in front of Jack, giving Leon Lai a chance to show he has been watching A Bullet in the head, as he does his best Tony Leung Chui Wai impression, this moment is as close to actual acting that the heavenly king gets in the movie. Another mention for the fantastic score here, with some great whistling for even more of a Morricone flavour. 

With Jack and Martin left for dead in the carnage, and even worse left betrayed by the surviving bosses, it's here Jack and Martin's women come into their own. With YoYo proving her previously unseen mettle in saving Jack from the assassins sent to finish him off at a massive personal cost. Fiona is the real revelation however, easily both the strongest character in the movie and the strongest female character in any of Johnnie To's crime films.  Resilient and loyal, as Martin crumbles after losing his legs, Fiona suffers all manner of indignities in order to help him back to Hong Kong. The Raymond Wong score here is amazing with an Edda Dell'Orso style vocal added, still with the Sukiyaki motif, it adds immeasurably to the melodrama on display with the shot of Martin being lifted by crane onto a ship back to Hong Kong being particularly striking. 

Fiona and YoYo's sacrifice inspire their broken men on to the path of vengeance, the two were always destined to be unified, united in their cause to take down the men that betrayed them and their brothers. Such is the hysterical fever pitch at this point that it doesn't matter if they are dead or alive.

Lau Ching Wan is amazing in this film, the switch from larger than life cowboy swagger and bravado of the first half to the almost wordless shell he becomes in the second, it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to come close to the range he shows here. This maybe the best performance of Lau Ching Wan's career. Johnnie To's skill at getting what he requires from his actors is well known and with Leon Lai, he took a hugely bankable but severely limited actor and got what he needed from him. By making Jack have so little to do, it hides Lai's shortcomings and provides contrast to Lau's Martin. Lai is actually quite brave in his performance, with everything going on around him, it must have been very difficult to do nothing.

A Hero never dies was To's first official directing credit for Milkyway image, and stylistically the film feels meticulously thought out. From the lighting by Cheng Siu Keung to the extreme widescreen framing and the incredible score, To intended to make the heroic bloodshed film to end them all. A film that comments on it's genre, from parody to eulogy and everything in between. This once most prominent of genres in Hong Kong cinema, deserted by fashion and the filmmakers who made it fashionable, perhaps A Hero never dies was the film that killed the genre, as looking at it now, what else is there left to say after this? Where else could it have gone?

The importance of Leone's influence on A Hero never dies cannot be underestimated, as much as it's a Hong Kong film, it's iconic imagery and use of music are hugely indebted to Il Maestro. To's movie does a similar thing to Leone's, where his movies were set in a hyperreal, filtered version of the American West, and commented on the legends and myths of the Western, so To's does a similar thing but for Hong Kong and it's own version of the western. A dark fairytale of gangster posturing and hysterical melodrama, the film cannot be viewed in realistic terms and this is where the film fails for many of it's detractors.

In time, A Hero never dies will maybe be seen for what it is, a flawed masterpiece. Few films are brave enough to take their genre to these extremes, this alone is reason enough to praise the film. The fact that even with how over the top it's melodrama is and with all it's ironic cool, I still find it so affecting, more so in fact every time I see it, which makes it a truly special movie. I'm struggling to think of any other films where such a mix of hot and cold actually works, A Hero never dies is the rare film that for me at least, can have it's cake and eat it.


robotGEEK said...

Wow! That is a completely thorough and engaging review! Based on your passion for this alone, I'll have to definitely check this out some day.

Phantom of Pulp said...

I'll say no more because you said it all. A HERO NEVER DIES will never die. It's eternal cinematic sunshine.

A hero never dies said...

rG. You really should asap, the only problem is the dvd available is of really poor quality and OOP. It really is required viewing if you're a fan of the heroic bloodshed genre.

A hero never dies said...

Phantom. You're comment made my day, thank you.

Have you ever written about the film?

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