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Reviewed by: Beat TG
Summary: 80s HK gangster genre revisited
Johnnie To, at the height of his game at the time (the man has still has the ability to churn out fresh movies without outshaping himself), decided to venture into the clichéd gangster genre of the 80s and make some big changes as far as characterization and injecting elements go. The result is a gangster tale told uniquely: with male-bounding, betrayal, respect, love and anger being executed like no other movies has done in a similar way. In other words, taking out the homo-eroticism out of such a movie will get one a whole new experience watching movies of the genre instead.
Reviewer Score: 9
The way To handles the storytelling pretty much highlights everything you otherwise would think is clichéd, lame and boring to watch and this is what makes To the brilliant filmmaker he really is, which also brings me to another aspect of the movie. While irony has proved to be something of an artistic tool in movies (which what I like about To's movies), it certainly doesn't mean it's flawless. There are certain scenes that I thought ruined the mood of the movie, even when it's supposed to be ironic and out of place. I don't know, maybe it's just me because I prefer things to be stylish and go into context (in this case in the ironic way). But since that's how To wanted to executed those scenes, I'll just leave it at that (and start to appreciate them the more I watch the movie).
Overall this is quite a movie, gathering up top talents together in one: Johnnie To's direction is innovative and refreshing and the gathered upped cast is great: Leon Lai, Lau Ching Wan, Fiona Leung, Yoyo Mung, Henry Fong Ping, Yen Shi Kwan and Yuen Bun; coupled with Yau Nai Hoi's and Szeto Kam Yuen's brilliant script, Wai Kai Fai's contribution, Yuen Bun's intense action co-ordination, Cheung Siu Keung's beautiful cinematography and Raymond Wong's haunting music score: resulting yet another successful movie by Milkyway Image!
Reviewed by: ewaffle
A Hero Never Dies is a brilliantly flawed masterpiece. Absurdly over the top and hyper-stylized, it upends many conventions of the gangster movie by making the gangster style into one of the main subjects of the film. They are cool, therefore they are.
Reviewer Score: 9
Martin and Jack are completely caught up in an existential nightmare. Each is the enforcer and top gun for his boss and both are forced to do battle with the other because the bosses are at war. As existential heroes all they can do is live as authentic and autonomous a life as they can while stuck in the reality created by a world they can influence but not fundamentally control or ore even change. They recognize the ultimate futility of their situation and accept the challenge to create new meanings in an otherwise senseless world while realizing the concrete certainty of their real lack of power. Johnny To uses many of the tropes, themes and images of the ultra-violent Hong Kong gangster movie but as soon as we become familiar and comfortable with them he changes the rules. The bosses served by the protagonists have none of the verve or energy of typical crime lords in movies like this. They act more like timid mid-level criminal bureaucrats lacking the accoutrements common to men of their station. Mr. Fong and Mr. Yam are very easy to dislike from their first appearance and become more so as the action progresses.
Each killers appearance and style are very different from the other. Lau Ching-Wan as Martin looks like a Thai cowboy with his ten gallon hat, leather pants, boots, ever present cigar and perfectly Brylcreemed pompadour. He runs very hot and is loud and flashyhe decks himself out in a white suit with a lavender shirt when not in his leathers. Leon Lai dresses simply in somber tones of conservative cut with only a necklace to set off his ensemble. He is quiet and coolalmost glacially so. While it might seem that pairing actors with such a disparity of screen presence and talent would be a problematic mismatchLau Ching-Wan can play any part imaginable while Leon Lais talents dont seem to include impersonating characters onscreen--they make it work.
Johnny Tos use of Lai seemed like the way that a number of directors have used Al Pacino recently. Pacinos recent work has been increasingly characterized by histrionic isolationthe other actors on the set may as well not be there. However in roles in which he is isolated or an outsider this estrangement from the other actors, a liability in more conventional movie dramas, makes sense. This tendency was well exploited in Merchant of Venice (Shylock), Angels in America and Simone. In much the same way Jack was the perfect part for Leon Lai. Jacks preternatural calm, imperturbability, coolness under fire (including a memorable scene in which he retrieved the head of a comrade killed during a gun battle with Martins men while the laser sight of a snipers rifle was locked onto him) and general lack of emotion allowed Lai to create a character without acting.
There is an almost unbearably suspenseful sequence that takes place at a motel on a rain swept night. Jack and his crew stop there to better protect their boss and we know that it wont be long before their rivals show up with guns blazing. Johnny To stretches the beginning of this scene to its breaking pointat first the audience is guessing only where the attack will come from but as the tension is heightened we wonder if it will happen at all. When Martin and his men do show up we are jolted even though when the scene began we knew how it had to end.
There is a scene in which Jacks men shoot up Martins apartment, an indication both of how much each knows about the other and also the respect they share. It wouldnt have been any more difficult for ambush Martin and shoot him but that would have violated the bond that was developing between them. Just as importantly it gave To a chance to refer to an iconic image used by John Woo. While they were shooting the air was full of feathers, many of them flying upward in violation of the laws of physics. On one hand it looked ridiculousif every bit of furniture in Martins home was stuffed with feathers it still couldnt have created such a stormbut more importantly it reminded on of the scenes of doves ascending in many of Woos violence drenched films.
There are some parallels in the action of the two men, much of which adds nothing to our knowledge of their charactersit is just there. One, however, is played for laughs and very funny. The first time through is during the opening sequences of the movie. Jacks boss is consulting Mr. Fortune Teller, groveling and pleading with him while the aged medium berates him for not following his advice from a year ago and beats him with his cane. Jack, unimpressed by Thai magic, breaks things up by demanding that the fortune teller predict whether he will be shot that daythen shoots him in the foot. Later on Martin arrives and seeing the fortune teller with a heavily bandaged foot, limping and supported by his fey assistant, starts laughing. He cuts immediately to the chase, asks the fortune teller if he can foresee if he will be shot, then shoots him the other foot.
The real power in Thailand, however, lies with the general. He controls both bossesthe assumption is that he is the wholesale supplier for heroin that is either shipped through or sold in Hong Kong. When the general has decided that all the bloodshed has been bad for business and in doing so makes Martin and Jack immediately obsolete. If their bosses arent going to kill each other then there is no need for highly trained killers.
The last several minutes of the film belong to Lau Ching-Wan. His girlfriend (Fiona Leung, terrific in a smallish role) is brave, the bosses are venal and disgusting, Jack is loyal, but it is Martin who carries the day. Even though he is crippled and wheelchair bound the men who were formerly his crew are clearly afraid of him and the two bosses, now working together, go from self-congratulatory glee to complete stark panic when he arrives.
One interesting side note. The way that Jacks girlfriend hides him from approaching assassins, which is wheeling him on a gurney from his hospital bed to the morgue in the basement and sticking him in one of the drawers used to storean one assumes, keep colddead bodies awaiting autopsy could be the basis for a comedy/horror movie. And, if A Hero Never Dies was made in a slightly different era it probably would have.
Reviewed by: MrBooth
Summary: A masterful work from Johnnie To
A HERO NEVER DIES was one of the first films that really marked Milkyway as the new power-house in Hong Kong film-making after so many of its luminaries fled to Hollywood around 1997. The film is a deconstruction of the Heroic Bloodshed genre that I've been told off for calling a parody (it is, but not a spoof). To and his writers take the conventions of the genre, as typified by the John Woo/Chow Yun Fat collaborations for example, and amplify them to 11, subtly critiquing the notions of honor, sacrifice and revenge that are the hallmarks of the genre. The characters in the film are so stylish, cool and macho that they become absurd, making the film is darkly and subtly hilarious (subtle enough that many have missed the fact entirely!). The film makes an odd couple with the following year's THE MISSION, which again deconstructs the genre and asks "ok, what would these characters *really* be like? You have to see both to fully appreciate To's vision, I think.
Reviewer Score: 9
The film is dominated by the male leads, with Lau Ching Wan always being dependable, and Leon Lai not sucking... like Wong Kar Wai, Johnnie To realises that the only way to effectively utilise Leon is to give him a character who is never required to express emotion - somebody so stone cold cool that nothing raises a glimmer of surprise, fear, excitement... anything... on his wooden face. To be fair, Leon has improved as an actor in recent years, but by 1998 he was still as unemotive as anybody in Hong Kong. Here, this is turned into a virtue rather than a liability.
The film is full of scenes that play on the notion of a cool, professional gangster - a personal favourite being the duo's meeting in a bar with their girlfriends in attendance. The characters don't speak much (at all?), with a macho face-off of coin flipping saying everything they need to say. Stylish filmed, beautifully scored (Raymond Wong produced a number of variations on the Japanese song Sukiyaki for the film, all of which are beatiful - it's a real shame a soundtrack for this film was never released) and intellectually stimulating - it's clear that Johnnie To is more intelligent than the majority of HK directors, and credits the audience with sufficient intelligence of their own not to have to spell everything out for them.
A HERO NEVER DIES is one of the best post-1997 Hong Kong films, though THE MISSION raised the bar even higher. Unfortunately there still does not seem to be a decent dvd release - the Universe disc has terrible picture quality.
Reviewed by: Axivula
Summary: High class heroism.
I really liked this one! As I have liked all the other Johnny To films I've seen.
There's just something there that I'd like to describe "Mens stuff". Characters here aren't just boys playing with guns, as they tend to be in most of the American action films. Main characters manage to be tough and sensitive at the same time. All the credit goes to good performances of Lau Ching-Wan and Leon Lai. Women in here also work out just fine enough.
Music in this is also good, it even brings more heroic feeling to it. If you like scores of Hans Zimmer you'll surely like this as well.
This film is not for those who want movies to be accurate portrait of someones normal day...
I like it strong. I like it dark. And I can handle some melodramatism as well.
Brotherhood, loyalty, betrayal... these main themes of all good crime/action movies are very well displayed in this Heroic/Drama/Bloodshed -film.
Definitely top class of it's genre. 9/10
Reviewed by: JohnR
Judging by the reviews here, this seems to be a movie that people either really love or really hate. Im in the middle somewhere, but I didnt like it much.
Positive things: The acting was well done, including the women, especially Fiona Leung who probably should have been nominated for best supporting actor (I have no idea who was that year). There was also a scene in which Leon Lai takes Yo Yo Mung to the top of a hill that was handled very well. And there was something in the way that bar singer sang Sukiyaki or whatever that songs called that wrapped around my gut; I even kept the end credits rolling to hear it some more.
Negative things: I dont like dark movies, ones where it seems its always night and the screen is always half black; this is one of those. This is also dark in the sense that, although there were a couple instances of humor, I dont think I saw anyone ever smile during the whole film. Somber for the most part. The two crime bosses were one dimensional and cartoon-like. And, though this isnt a fault of the movie, the DVD I watched had a lot of places where the subtitles were difficult to keep up with.
The beginning of the film was needlessly confusing with its time displacement. It didnt come off like creative editing, it seemed more like the director dropped a couple scenes on the floor and picked them in the wrong order.
I cant say I hated it, though. And I may watch it again to see if it gets better, like it did for MilesC. After my initial viewing, I dont feel I wasted my time watching it, but I dont think it rates more than 3.5 out of 5.
Reviewed by: balstino
Summary: Starts well, the rest is awful.
In the first 20 mins, I really thought I'd found the next Hard Boiled (if a little more tongue in cheek). After that I wanted to burn this disc like Chow Yun Fat burns that fake dollar at the beginning of A Better Tommorrow. Luckily, someone wanted to trade it with me. I felt guilty afterwards. My advice is don't watch A Hero Never Dies.
Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Another attempt at making a strong action story, towards the styles of John Woos The Killer, but in all honesty, though Im not keen on Johnnie To anyway, this film falls completely flat. The films starts out looking very promising, but less than half way into it, it already fails to deliver any sort of consistency of the first exciting 15 minutes, of good matter anyway. The viewer then has to put up countless dull scenes with either Lau Ching Wan or Leon Lai doing rediculous things to make the time go by it would seem.
Lau Ching Wan is wasted again in a Johnnie To film it would seem, he should have learnt his lesson in Below Hypothermia, two years earlier. I cant recall the name of the film, but this is actually a complete copy of a film done years earlier in the US, with a disabled assassin.
Lau Ching Wan did the best he could I suppose to portray the paralysed assassin, but the character is so laughable, that its hard to actually say Lau was any good. Leon Lai on the other hand is excellent in this, and is the only strong point of the film.
The music is annoying as hell; in fact I really had to turn it down at some points it was so pitiful. It's not just the music, the story and the whole concept which is bad, the two females Yoyo Mung and Fiona Leung and terribly annoying too. Someone said they did good performances...if they were in a circus, yeah. Luckily though, the two hysterical screaming women are put out of their misery, leaving the final 30 minutes with a little more chance to see some of the story, which finally unfolds at the end!
To conclude, this is just another Johnnie To mess, with very few advantages. Johnnie To fans seem to like this, but other than them I dont think too many people would enjoy it much.
Ridicule is one word I could use to describe this film.
Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Summary: Pretty good
You can tell this has the Johnnie To style to this movie. A bleak movie where everyone is a bad guy. Leon Lai and Lau ching Wan are both hit man for different boss, until something goes bad.
Reviewer Score: 7
The movie relies more on style and motion than plot. Every actor plays there part very well. The gun fights are pretty good. The main thing i didn't like about this movie was the subtitles are the smallest i have ever seen!!
Reviewed by: Chuma
Summary: "So Fortune Teller, are you going to get shot today?"
A gang boss named Mr Yam is going to see his fortune teller
in Thailand. While he is there one of his gang members named Jack gets
impatient, the results are bad for the fortune teller.
Not long after we learn that the gang is currently at war with another
for control of Hong Kong. Jack and company are ambushed by the rival gang
and a gunfight ensues.
At the end of the battle, Jack goes to give one of the deceased back
his dignity (and his head), but he is targeted by a sniper with a laser
sighted rifle. The sniper is also wearing a cowboy hat
and smoking a cigar.
This sniper is Martin, a head honcho from the rival gang who is a
mutal enemy of Jack.
Jack and Co. decide to pay Martin's apartment a visit to 'redecorate'
(not before exchanging phone messages in a very funny sequence.)
They both meet up at a bar where they crash there cars into one another
repeatedly. When they enter the establishment, everyone leaves. This is
because they begin their wine tasting contest, where the aim seems
to be to not let the other person drink their wine.
This is interrupted by the arrival of their girlfriends, who amongst
other things bring more wine and also manage to settle things
down a bit.
Later, Martin calls on his boss, Fong, to report that he couldn't
kill Jack. Fong wants him to go back to Thailand as Mr Yam
has gone back to his fortune teller.
In a motel out in the middle of nowhere during a fierce thunderstorm,
a massive gunfight ensues between Jack's gang and Martin's and
there are many casualties. Whether Jack and Martin are among them is
up for you to find out, but the results are not entirely what you
I liked this movie as it was a very good crime/action drama. It does
involve a gang setting, but it didn't seem to have all the cliches
of triad movies. It goes without saying that the gunfight scenes are
Rating : 9/10
Reviewed by: MilesC
Summary: Lush, somewhat sly update on the gangster genre.
This certainly isn't a movie that will appeal to everyone, but I personally can't recommend it enough. The story is familiar, but with some typically unpredictable Milkyway twists. Minor scenes are overplayed to (I believe intentional) mildly amusing effect, while many of the movie's most pivotal moments are so underplayed that they could easily be missed. While the narrative might be too strange for some, the acting, (including a downright tolerable performance from Leon) photography, and even Raymond Wong's score make this unmissable. The only complaint I might make is that the shoot 'em up ending is slightly disappointing, and displays the constraints of the budget; the blood and exciting/horrifying carnage are important factors in endings of this sort, and the fact is there are too few squibs in the finale to produce the desired effect. Think of Milkyway's earlier Beyond Hypothermia if you're not sure what effect I mean. Still, it's a minor complaint to make about a great movie.
Post-script: I don't think the above review is effusive enough. I've watched this movie at least five times, and it keeps getting better; though it my not reach the highest peaks in HK cinema, it is probably the closest thing I've ever seen to a perfect movie. I would hardly change a thing.
Reviewed by: grimes
This film has the same director and writer as Lifeline and the same screenwriter as Expect the Unexpected and The Longest
Nite, among others. It also has Wai Ka-Fai as producer. Wai Ka-Fai and Johnny To have collaborated in various roles
(producer, screenwriter, director) on Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 and The Odd One Dies. These films (excluding Lifeline,
which was good but not great) are some of the best work to come out of Hong Kong in the last few years, having solid scripts,
fine acting, and often daring direction. A Hero Never Dies continues that tradition of excellence.
The film is about Jack (Leon Lai) and Martin (Lau Ching-Wan). They are the chief enforcers for two different crime bosses,
who as the film opens, are at war with each other. Because of this war, there is a personal feud between. However, it is also
apparent that they deeply respect one another. The scene in the bar at the beginning of the film where this relationship is
developed is priceless. Of course, their positions will inevitably lead them into violent conflict.
Continuing the Wai Ka-Fai/Johnny To tradition of playing with time, it is extremely difficult to determine the exact
sequence of events in the first portion of the film. Also continuing a tradition, this works quite gracefully, making the viewer
think but not becoming so confusing as to ruin the film.
Tbe first portion culminates in a raging gun battle. Afterwards, the two bosses abandon Jack and Martin in Thailand to their
fates, having been told by 'The General' (the bosses' boss) to settle their feud. The rest of the film should be fairly easy to
figure out. Revenge.
A Hero Never Dies has a strong mythic tone that reminded me very strongly of Wai Ka-Fai's Peace Hotel The heroes, Jack
and Martin, are much larger than life. This is in keeping with the heroic bloodshed genre which this film builds upon. Many
aspects of A Hero Never Dies will remind the viewer of John Woo's classics The Killer and A Better Tomorrow. However, this
film, and other recent Wai Ka-Fai and Johnny To films takes this genre and builds on top of it. A Hero Never Dies, though
told in the present tense, often feels like a story being told by a third party remembering past events. Like many myths, it is
recalling a time when there were true heroes. Also like many myths, there is a moral to this tale (actually, there are many
morals that can be drawn from this story).
The film is extremely well-directed, from beautiful shots of Thai landscape to several extremely exciting action sequences.
There is not a shot out of place or misused. One of the directorial highlights is the previously mentioned scene between
Jack and Martin in the bar, as well as a scene involving Leon Lai fighting off three assassins in Thailand. This scene has the
single most stunning shot in the film (which I will leave unexplained so as not to reveal too much).
Lau Ching-Wan gives another great performance (who could expect less?) and Leon Lai's general lack of expression works
quite well in this role. Perhaps he has found his calling playing killers. I do think he is getting better as an actor, given his
recent performance in City of Glass. He still has work to do before he will be in same class as many of the people with whom
he has costarred. The supporting cast are all good as well, though they have very little screen time compared to the two
It might not be far off to suggest that the Johnny To/Wai Ka-Fai combination has taken the place of John Woo (who is busy
making mediocre films in Hollywood). They, perhaps more than any others, have defined the heroic bloodshed genre in the
late 90s, starting with Wai Ka-Fai's Peace Hotel and continuing up to A Hero Never Dies. A lot of people are talking about the
decline of the Hong Kong film industry. It is true that there is not the same volume of impressive, original work being
produced as there was during the late 80s and 90s. However, with films like A Hero Never Dies I can at least be assured that
someone over there is still committed to originality and quality. Here's to hoping that Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai never come
Reviewed by: j.crawford
This movie is beyond stupid. It gave me a headache when I saw at the cinema. Johnnie To's worst movie ever, made in the same year when he produced a true Hong Kong movie classic like Expect the Unexpected. I even went back and watched the vcd when it came out, at the urging of my friend Alex, and still found it totally implausable[sp]? Lau Ching Wan is wasted as the legless sniper who perches on the roof for revenge. Dreadful.
Reviewer Score: 3
En français ; Ce film est au delà de stupide. Il m'a donné un mal de tête quand j'ai vu au cinéma. Le plus mauvais film de Johnnie To jamais, fait par même année qu'il a produit un véritable classique de Hong Kong comme Expect the Unexpected. J'ai même retourné et ai observé le vcd quand il a sorti, à recommander de mon ami Alex, et l'a toujours trouvé totalement invraisemblable. Lau Ching Wan est gaspillé en tant que tireur isolé sans jambes qui est perché sur le toit pour la vengeance. Redoutable.
more at happyfortune.org
Reviewed by: Mark
Summary: Glorious homage to the gunplay genre
This is one for the true believers. If you long for the heroic archetypes of late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong cinema, here they are. The makers of Expect the Unexpected (director Johnnie To and producer Wai Ka-Fai) leave gritty crime realism aside for a moment and deliver up a glorious homage to the two-gun-blazing big-heart-pumping Hong Kong gunplay genre.
Jack (Leon Lai) is the big brother in Mr Yam's gang. Martin (Lau Ching Wan) is the big brother in Mr Fong's gang. Both are men of honour, and there is a strong bond between them - but that bond is sundered when Yam declares war on Fong. A triad killer must stand by his boss, no matter what, so the two spend one last night looking at each other through the bottom of a wine glass, knowing that tomorrow they'll be looking at each other over the barrel of a gun. Gunsmoke and cordite ensue, but in the aftermath Mr Yam and Mr Fong become partners again, wishing only for peace, prosperity and to quietly sweep away any reminders of their foolhardy war - reminders such as Martin and Jack. Loyalty is the big theme of this movie: do you do the right thing by your brothers or your boss? Each character faces that question and each finds a different answer, even if it means following it all the way to the graveyard - but as the title says, a hero never dies.
Lau Ching Wan is excellent, even with a bad moustache and a cowdy hat. He is the man to watch in Hong Kong film at the moment, self-assured and with style to spare. Leon Lai is less successful, mostly because about all he does is look noble and/or puzzled - but he does both very well, so he gets by. He certainly has the looks to carry the archetype he's playing here, and when he walks in slow-mo into the bar with the light streaming behind him and the theme music playing, you know that old fashioned heroes are back in movies.
The women in this film are also first rate - strong performances and strong roles. Fiona (Fiona Leung) and Yoyo (Yoyo Mung) are Martin and Jack's respective girlfriends, and both have different ideas about what it takes to be the woman of a big time gangster. They are committed and pro-active, and provide the best scenes in the film. Their parts in the story allow A Hero Never Dies to at times transcend the male-centric films of John Woo (Wai Ka-Fai directed Peace Hotel for Woo, so he knows the turf well enough).
As you'd also expect, there's action aplenty. The stand-out is a stakeout in the rain at a cheapo Thai motel, which at once evokes film noir and westerns, with even a bit of Aliens thrown in as hordes of gangsters crash down through the roof.
The film does threaten to drown in its own myth-making. The scene where Jack and his buddies stand tall and piss up against towering trees while the theme music booms goes clear across the border into parody without a visa, with a return trip a few scenes later when Martin and his buddies piss up against the same trees to the same music. That highlights another problem with the story, in that everything has to happen twice, once for each side. Two gangsters + two girls + two gang bosses + two gangs - it's the Noah's Ark principal of screenwriting. It also has a streak of melodrama wider than Kowloon Bay, so if that bugs you, stay well clear.
I loved it though, and it was the best film of 1998 for me. Here's an easy test to decide whether A Hero Never Dies is going to do it for you: Do you think the sight of a legless gangster pushing himself along on a trolley in dogged pursuit of vengeance is (a) a stirring image of a man who will go to any length to find redemption, (b) a dodgy treatment of disability issues, or (c) a bit silly? If your answer is (a), grab your buddies and walk tall into the nearest screening of this Hong Kong gangster gem.