Just Heroes (1989)
By: Stuart Giesel on July 31, 2013 | Comments
Analog Man can not live on DVD and Blu-ray alone. In this ongoing column we blow the dust off our VCR's and travel back to an ancient time where VHS tapes ruled the earth. Our mission? To re-discover those forgotten gems that are yet to receive the digitally enhanced 7.1 channel surround sound treatment...

Directors: John Woo, Ma Wu
Stars: Kuan Tai Chen, Kang-Yeh Cheng, Lei Cheng, John Cheung
Screnplay: Tommy Hau, Kuang Ni
Country: Hong Kong
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Made around the same time as the far-superior The Killer, John Woo teamed up with prolific actor Wu Ma (you'll recognise his face if you've seen even a couple of Hong Kong films from this period) to co-direct this convoluted gangster tale. The film would have been lost to history had it not been for the fact that it contains some damn fine action scenes in the traditional flamboyant Woo style. When people and bullets aren't flying around in slow motion, Just Heroes tends to be relentlessly talky and melodramatic. However for all that, the story still captivates in that "who's-backstabbing-who" sort of way, the performances are solid and the action is occasionally sublime.

The gist of the plot is that an extremely well-loved triad crime lord is assassinated, leaving three potential heirs to battle it out for the top job. Beyond that, we get into a whole lot of political turmoil and bickering, as the potential bosses try to keep business on track whilst uncovering the truth of who is behind the assassination. It's all very convoluted, unnecessarily so, and Just Heroes certainly could have benefited with some streamlining. Loyalties shift with the ease of a fart in the wind, but thankfully just when you think you're over the whole thing, Woo delivers an action set-piece that kicks the film into gear.

Look, as far as I'm concerned, John Woo could film someone shitting into a plastic bag and I'd still watch two hours of it. He may not always deliver the goods - and some of his last U.S. output confirms that - but there's no denying the man can shoot an action scene, and Just Heroes has a couple of doozies. The script is a bit of a mess; even the presence of The Killer's Danny Lee and future megastar Stephen Chow in a decidedly serious role can't save it. Think The Godfather with more histrionics and political infighting and you get the idea. But just when you're getting worn down by all the face-saving macho bullshit, Woo suddenly delivers a gun battle in a funeral home or a pier or a warehouse (he sure loves gunfights in anonymous warehouses, this guy) and lifts the picture out of the doldrums.

What Just Heroes really needed was someone with the presence and magnetism of Chow Yun-Fat, who's sorely missed here. At times it does feel like Woo is simply going through the motions and repeating what he's already done. Hell, there's a minor character who quotes Chow's character from A Better Tomorrow, then goes on to hide guns in vases and other locations before the outbreak of a massive mansion gunfight! It's certainly one of the most overt, and silly, cases of self-referencing outside of a comedy film you're likely to see.

That's not to say the film is a mess if you magic away the action scenes. David Chiang as a former triad who left the business to run a fish business is commendably stoic in a subdued but compelling performance. There are lots of faces familiar to HK film fans, including the aforementioned Chow and co-director Wu Ma, Ti Lung (in a cameo), and the gargoyle-faced Fui-On Shing (another Killer alum). And although the script is riddled with double- and triple-crosses, it's pretty straightforward to follow provided you can differentiate one triad goon from the other. Some of the dramatic moments are nicely handled, and there are even a couple of genuine shocks. Unfortunately, as is typical of HK cinematic output from this period, the female roles are underwritten and mainly there as arm-candy for the guys.

Still, the action is what matters and Just Heroes delivers. It's strikingly bloody at times, not quite on par with the finale of A Better Tomorrow II, but close. There are moments that rival anything in The Killer or Bullet in the Head (but, just to make clear, not Hard-Boiled). For those who don't mind a bit of political subterfuge and backstabbing in their crime films, it's well worth a watch. Certainly, for lovers of "heroic bloodshed" movies in general, this should be on your must-watch list. And for Woo completists like myself, it's about damn time that Just Heroes received a nice subtitled DVD or Blu-Ray release in the West.

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