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Heroes Shed No Tears (1986,Hong Kong)

06/01/2012

Director: John Woo     Starring: Eddy Ko, Ching-Ying Lam, Yuet Sang Chin, Doo Hee Jang, Ho Kon Kim

John Woo. For Western audiences the name is most likely to conjure up images of his less than brilliant Hollywood career (Mission Impossible 2, Windtalkers, etc) or, for the slightly better informed cinemagoer, perhaps his blood soaked, bullet riddled HK action classics like The Killer, A Better Tomorrow or Hard Boiled may spring to mind. By the time Woo had arrived at the gunfight as the quintessence of action cinema though he had already enjoyed a long a fruitful career making traditional kung fu movies and more conventional comedies and dramas. Although it was released after A Better Tomorrow, Heroes Shed No Tears had been made before it, actually being filmed in 1984/5 and then getting shelved only seeing the light of day when A Better Tomorrow proved an unreserved hit.

It’s the story of a group of Chinese mercenaries hired by the Thai government to kidnap a General who is the head of a vicious drug cartel in the Golden Triangle. After achieving the first part of their mission with consumate ease the mercenaries, led by Chang Chun (Eddy Ko), have to escape with the General but with his men in hot pursuit along with a Vietnamese officer who gets in their way and is thirsting for revenge it’s not going to be anywhere as easy as the kidnapping itself.

It’s a fun if scrappy affair. This is clearly the sketchbook from which he was working when he went on to redefine the action genre with his more famous films. The stylised violence forgoes realism in favour of dynamism and drama. The unlimited ammo rule, until it matters from a dramatic standpoint, applies. There are waves of entirely disposable mooks who exist solely to be sent to the next life by the good guys. People can withstand the most horrendous injuries without much care where the story demands it. These blueprints (arguably inspired by the traditional kung fu movies Woo started out making) are the basis upon which Woo would later build his more stylish, more refined gun-fu movies and here they lack a little bit of refinement.

There’s some stuff in there that feels utterly out of place and so it should. A pace shattering attempt at eroticism in the middle of the film, thrown in at the insistence of a studio desperate to increase the movie’s foreign appeal and therefore saleability, feels completely out of place and threatens to derail proceedings. Apparently this isn’t the only issue caused courtesy of the studio who also made a mockery of the film with a ham fisted editing job.

None of this can undo the fact that Heroes Shed No Tears is actually pretty good. Sure there are random plot points (sometimes thrown in purely to show some nipple) but it’s less about the story than it is the action and there are moments when the genius to come is hinted at here. When Chan has to rescue his family from the evil General’s men is a good example or the fantastic bullet down the gunsight (from the sniper’s point of view) that costs the Vietnamese officer his eye and sets him on the team’s trail in an effort to get his revenge are reason enough to see the film. A lot of the action scenes can seem a bit daft, even by Woo’s over the top standards, a symptom I think of the wide open spaces of the Thai countryside but when the action is more contained things get back on track a bit. There’s only so many times you can be convinced that a forward roll will deliver you safely out of harms way when you are out in the open being shot at by twenty guys. As well as being a taste of what was to come from Woo, Heroes Shed No Tears also bears obvious hallmarks of his kung fu movie legacy. It has the most hand to hand fighting out of any Woo film I’ve seen and Chan’s final confrontation with his monocular Vietnamese pursuer is more or less pure old school kung fu movie action. Clearly it’s the film that bridges the gap between the two action genres, Woo’s gateway drug into the world of heroic bloodshed carnage.

Rough round the edges it may very well be but it’s an absolute must for any Woo fan (like me) if only to get a sense of how he developed his craft. This Cine Asia reissue is probably the best way to see it too. It’s a decent transfer (way better than the shoddy version I used to have on VHS) presented with their usual care and attention and there’s a half decent interview with the director on the disc too. Once again, it’s good to know that some people are keeping the fires burning for films like this, that are of more interest to collectors and enthusiasts than the general movie viewing public.

If you are new to Woo, maybe give this a miss and have a look at his more famous Hong Kong films first (some of his Western work is good fun but all of it is inferior to his HK ouevre) but if you are looking for something a little more obscure, the film that started it all, then feast your eyes on this.

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