A Hero Never Dies 真心英雄 (1998) Review

Imagine if Johnnie To is given the free reign to direct A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色>, the result would be something like A Hero Never Dies <真心英雄>. Like the seminal 1986 action-film classic, Johnnie To explores the popular “heroic bloodshed” subgenre and made it his own in an unabashedly operatic and quirky overtone.

The story — credited to Yau Nai-Hoi and Szeto Kam Yuen — couldn’t be simpler enough: Two opposing rivals Martin (Lau Ching-Wan) and Jack (Leon Lai) are both hitmen working for their respective bosses Mr Fong (Henry Fong Ping) and Mr Yam (Yen Shi-Kwan). And although they are enemies, they have mutual respects for each other.

Then one night, they are both betrayed by their own bosses and badly wounded during a gunfight. Once Martin and Jack are disposed, the two triad bosses eventually made a truce and start over as new business partners.

But Martin, with both of his injured legs forced to be amputated, is looking for payback and soon joined by Jack, who’s been laying low working on a labour job at the icehouse.

Devoid of both thematic and dramatic urgency seen in John Woo’s heroic bloodshed subgenre, Johnnie To — making his first directorial feature for the Milkyway production he co-founded alongside Wai Ka-Fai in 1996 — is more interested in a minimalist approach.

The familiar themes of brotherhood, friendship and loyalty are all present but without the usual expositions commonly found in such a movie. It’s the kind of style-over-substance direction that any form of emotional depth is largely sidelined.

In A Hero Never Dies <真心英雄>, Johnnie To’s characters look as if they all exist in a self-contained world where friendship and get-together still happens, even if they are rivals who do not mind shooting at each other. This can be evidently seen during the elaborate oddball moment — one of Johnnie To’s signature narrative approaches — where Martin and Jack meet up one night for a drink. From the way they bump each other’s cars to smashing wine glasses with a flip of a coin on the table, Martin and Jack’s off-hour moment as two buddies of sorts undoubtedly belong to the realm of male-bonding fantasy strictly designed to satisfy genre fans.

The action, as expected, is heavily stylised that echoes the visual sensibilities of Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. The final gunfight in a nightclub is undoubtedly the highlight here, with credits go to Yuen Bun’s (who also appeared in a cameo as a bartender) gritty action direction while Cheng Siu-Keung’s atmospheric cinematography gives the movie a subtle neo-noir angle.

Both Lau Ching-Wan and Leon Lai deserve praises for their game performances as two opposing hitmen. Interestingly enough, Johnnie To doesn’t neglect the female characters as well — a rarity for this kind of male-driven action film. As a result, Fiona Leung and Yoyo Mung give solid supports to their respective hitmen’s girlfriend roles.

THREE-AND-A-HALF-stars

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