A Hero Never Dies (1998)

Directed by: Johnnie To
Written by: Yau Nai-Hoi & Szeto Kam-Yuen
Producers: Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai
Starring: Leon Lai, Lau Ching Wan, Fiona Leung, Yoyo Mung & Yam Sai Kwoon

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1999:
Best Actress (Fiona Leung)
Best Costume Design (So Kwok-Ho)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1999:
Film Of Merit

It's funny, looking at Johnnie To's directed films at Milkyway, you know you're going to see the same people working both in front and behind the camera. You got regular writer Yau Nai-Hoi, cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung, producer Wai Ka-Fai and cast members such as Lau Ching Wan. However, A Hero Never Dies was the START of a working relationship between this crew. A successful one that subsequently resulted in acclaimed works such as Running Out Of Time and The Mission.

Jack (Leon Lai from Going Home) and Martin (Lau Ching Wan from Full Alert) are two professional killers on opposite sides of a rival triad gangs-war. This conflict between the two is about to be turned around when they're both betrayed at the hands of their respective bosses...

The above plot synopsis probably won't give you a feeling of the feeling director Johnnie To projects through his film. In his first directed Milkyway production, To take it upon himself to resurrect themes John Woo injected into his gunplay films back in the 80s and 90s. The results is one of the few very good heroic bloodshed entries from latter half of the 1990s.

Nowadays we know what To does best in moviemaking, namely employing a distinct visual style and great subtlety. In other words, not conveying much. That is evident in A Hero Never Dies but in this one he divides his time between that and making a, what you can almost call, straight forward crime-thriller. To has never been interested in following a blueprint or audiences expectations and here he takes his time to truly get off the launchpad story-wise. Not every viewer have expressed appreciation in the sometimes quirky visual style of To's but I've always been fascinated by his approach. Daring but then again, to the best of my knowledge, To hasn't exactly lit up the box office with this style of his. There's not much said but the basic conflict plot between gangs and killers is set up. Check. Now, To goes into a scene like the wine/coin one and delights in letting it run for a long time. It's wonderfully edgy and hard boiled, which may be seen as parody but I'm more in the camp perceiving it as another take on a genre convention. The honorable confrontation between opposing forces.

Really what A Hero Never Dies does well is brining back the coolness in heroes of Hong Kong cinema. Gun-toting, honorable killers there have not been any memorable examples of since Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo collaborations. While To does not and probably isn't out to match that, his stylistic touch would be hard for most Hong Kong directors to duplicate. A camera that almost constantly moving, dramatic lighting in both action and dialogue scenes in combination with the Hanz Zimmer-esque heroic score by Raymond Wong (one aspect I think doesn't quite match the on screen quality) creates a thrilling atmosphere that would've been nice to experience, with Hong Kong films decline in mind, when A Hero Never Dies opened. It sure was missed.

To hasn't always directed melodrama well but he strikes a good balance with it here. At the halfway point, more weight is put on the characters relationships with their women and I was ready to criticize To for downplaying it too much. Not enough emotional weight I thought but then you realize certain key lines are enough set up for these long relationships and it certainly comes through in the performances from the leading ladies (Fiona Leung deserves an extra nod for her work). To chooses melodramatic moments of greater outbursts but overall remains low-key, at times dialogue is replaced by lingering on characters who's minds are in tragedy. In particular very true for Lau Ching Wan's Martin.

After the fire action design in Lifeline, Yuen Bun was again brought in to realize Johnnie To's vision of heroic bloodshed in 1997. Within the distinguishable cinematography by Cheng Siu-Keung, Yuen brings both straightforward action design and the ballistic kind, the Johnnie To ballistic kind I should mention. We're not talking action akin to the one in The Mission but To does, at this point two years before that film, likes his heroes to remain on the calmer side when in gunfight situations. As the movie progresses, the ballistic nature of the action design does increase (even get snippets of two gun action and the inn shoot-out really is an accomplishment by the entire crew) but it's all residing within a soothing atmosphere somewhat. It's, and it deserves to be mentioned again, Johnnie To after all. Hong Kong cinema seems to have forgotten about some of it's greatest assets such as action but Johnnie hasn't let his unique vision die , as seen in the recent PTU.

As his two heroes that never die (as per the genre requirements, get shot 5 times, you'll most definitely walk on) To cast Leon Lai and Lau Ching Wan. I will never consider Leon to be a promising or a favourite actor of mine but it has to be said he's been directed well by the likes of To and Peter Chan. Not a very expressive actor, director To uses that fact for the character of Jack, making it work very well. Who can rival Lau though? Lau Ching Wan, in one of his better performances as Jack. An ultra-cool killer, dressed in a cowboy hat and untouchable until the day he's robbed of most he took for granted in life. Lau's performance turns to largely wordless in the second half of the film but knowing the ever so professional Lau, he shines as great as ever before. He nails those requirements of having to convey the emotions of loss, sadness and the determination for revenge. There are criminally few real actors in Hong Kong today and like Johnnie To, I wish Lau will remain at home and even take part in the newly resurrected quality in Milkyway films. A familiar face from Once Upon A Time In China, Yam Sai Kwoon co-stars.

Hong Kong cinema can't afford to lose Johnnie To right now. A splendid visionary whose work work doesn't not allow itself to be created on a constant basis due to the filmmaking environment in Hong Kong. His Milkyway directing debut is a classy piece of work filled with content of the heroic bloodshed genre I first discovered during my first few steps into Hong Kong cinema. However, A Hero Never Dies is not John Woo nor Ringo Lam. Those directors had their vision, To has his and it works equally well. Milkyway came to be responsible for some of the best thought out crime thrillers of the late 90s and in my opinion I can easily say they established a genre classic with A Hero Never Dies.

The DVD:

Universe's dvd presentations is soft in intent but the very clean 2.35:1 formatted transfer does come off as a bit too soft and even fuzzy in a few long shots.

The Cantonese 5.1 Dolby Digital audio sounds a bit flat but remains a fairly enveloping experience mostly thanks to the score. A Mandarin 5.1 option is also available.

The English subtitles are partly placed on the print and black bars which makes it zoomable to a pleasing degree for us widescreen owners. Only spotted a few honest errors in an otherwise good subtitling effort. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also selectable.

Universe has thrown in a few more extras than usual, main one being a Q & A with actress Yoyo Mung. You the viewer selects the questions and we're then given short filmed replies by the actress in Cantonese. Saving grace of this extra is that it comes with optional English subtitles but given the running time of each clip, not much solid info is provided. The last clip is interesting though when Ruby talks about her vision of how to act a particular scene and how Johnnie To saw it (the director was right). Next up is the NG Footage reel that lasts 3 minutes and 7 seconds. Nothing earthshattering here besides a few shots of Lai being frustrated when an action scene fails.

Bland Star's Files for Leon Lai, Lau Ching Wan (billed as Sean Lau in this section), Yoyo Mung, Johnnie To & Wai Ka Fai plus trailers for A Hero Never Dies, Extreme Crisis, Enter The Eagles and City Of Glass finishes off the dvd.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson