A Hero Never Dies (1998)
Leon Lai and Lau Ching-Wan play the right hand men of rival Triad bosses. They admire and respect each other, but their jobs put them in opposition and bring them into conflict.
A HERO NEVER DIES was one of the first films that marked Milkyway as the new power-house in Hong Kong cinema 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 (satire is a better term). To and his writers take the conventions of the genre, as typified by the John Woo/Chow Yun-Fat collaborations for example, and turn them up 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 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.
The film is dominated by the male leads, with Lau Ching-Wan always being dependable and Leon Lai at least 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.