Just Heroes


Sep 27, 2011

Just Heroes (1989)
Director: John Woo and Ma Wu
Writers: Ni Kuang and Tommy Hau
Starring: David Chiang, Stephen Chow and Danny Lee

The Plot: Just Heroes tells the tale of one Triad boss and his three sons. After this boss is murdered during a set-up by his limo driver, the remaining bosses must decide who is to take over the family business. Wai (David Chiang) was the dead bosses’ first choice, but he has recently quit the Triad business and instead focuses his time on selling fish. So, leaving it up to the two sons still involved in the game, Sou (Danny Lee) is the one chosen to take over for the big boss. This upsets a few members of the family, namely Jacky (Stephen Chow) who doesn’t feel Sou is the right man for the job. Jacky instead feels that his friend Wah is more deserving of the position and he makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t trust Sou. Things get even more peculiar whenever Wah receives a phone call from the former bosses’ limo driver who confesses that it was actually Sou who ordered the hit on the previous boss. With the phone call recorded the tape begins to circulate behind Sou’s back. Is Sou the real traitor? With so many different characters vying for control of this Triad group, anyone could very well be the rat. Tragedy and bloodflow are sure to come for all involved.


The Review

Just Heroes is arguably the most obscure and forgotten of John Woo’s “gun” focused heroic bloodshed films made during his Hong Kong era. It seems that people tend to subscribe to one out of two theories on just why this film remains so obscure. Some say the film just isn’t up to Woo’s standards. In comparison to his other films, all of which were instant-classics, that certainly seems a viable notion. Another good reason for this obscurity could also come from the fact that John Woo only directed roughly 60% of the actual movie. It’s true that Just Heroes most certainly isn’t as brilliant as the A Better Tomorrow series, Hard Boiled, The Killer or A Bullet in the Head, but it is certainly better than Once A Thief in my opinion and that is a film which seemed to at least gather some sort of a audience. Although there are plenty who would disagree with me on this, I think that if you are a John Woo fan you really should get a kick out of Just Heroes. The film doesn’t follow many of the formulas instigated by Woo within his solo career. It has a fairly original plotline by itself and reaches out further than one would expect from a film that seems to have been quickly strung together in order to help a mutual friend (Chang Cheh) who was having financial troubles. When you look at it from that perspective the film is surprisingly excellent, but if you’re the kind of fellow who has hated everything by Woo except The Killer… then chances are you’ll hate this one as well. However, open minded action junkies who keep their expectations at a minimum might just find an unheralded classic waiting to be explored.

The movie isn’t exactly brimming with subtext. The themes in the film are probably not the most original (films such as Rich & Famous, City War, and Tragic Hero all offer similar themes of loyalty and brotherhood), but for the most part Just Heroes is original in its general-plot and the atmosphere created by the mix between John Woo and Ma Wu’s (and it is believe that Danny Lee actually had some directorial duties as well) directorial styles. The clash of ideas seems to have given the film a slightly original flavor that is not found within Woo’s solo work. The beats of the film are like that of a soap opera, and this is either the worst aspect of the film or an added dose of originality for the audience. I definitely feel stings from both sides of that argument. The drawn-out melodrama Woo is known for is certainly present within the film, but the mix of intertwining characters who have ever-changing motivations does give the film a sensational taste of soap opera theatrics. This can be seen as helping the film because it gives what would normally be a rather run-of-the-mill gangster film something different from a lot of the generic heroic-bloodshed movies out there. Yet, much like a real soap opera, the somewhat convoluted series of twists and turns within this Triad family sometimes turns out to be laughable. Laughable, yes, but also fairly confusing when you throw together the gigantic ensemble cast that we have in this film.

Whether John Woo did very little in the film or not, it’s hard to erase his fingerprints. The action scenes in the film easily rival some of his more classic work. Although the plot may bog down at moments causing the film to feel longer than it really is, there are at least three very large gun battles throughout to hold your attention. The film opens with one such gun battle that involves a series of explosives, two handed automatic weapons and one brilliantly handled shotgun. This is ultimately why the fans love these films. Danny Lee, who worked with John Woo in the same year on The Killer, struts well in every action sequence he is in and arguably gives one his most charismatic performances. He and David Chiang, both of who are Shaw Bros. veterans who worked with Chang Cheh, rule the film in everything that they do. This project, which features several Shaw devotees, mixes the bravado of the martial art films of old with acrobatic gun play that easily rivals many similar action sequences within The Killer. The sheer volume of action setpieces during the climax to the film is ultimately why it seems fair that such comparisons can be made. This climax allows John Woo to destroy yet another mansion, all while the audience has flashbacks of A Better Tomorrow II. Within Just Heroes we are not treated to anything quite as insane or over the top as the climax to John Woo’s second Tomorrow film, but as the film progresses the blood certainly does start to flow and walls certainly do start to crumble. The action is everything you’ve grown to expect from Woo. It’s fast, cool, brutal and impeccably edited. Yet, all action and no brains would only be fun if a film were to take a camp direction and Just Heroes is so bitterly serious that it never dares come close to taking that route. Thankfully, Just Heroes instead takes its time and focuses on its narrative structure. Unfortunately, the previously mentioned cast-size definitely prevents this film from being the most digestible piece of cinematic food.

The movie gets a bit bogged down in its narrative, causing audiences to really focus on just who-is-who and what their main motivation is. Despite this confusion, it is a movie that always remains interesting and always keeps its entertainment level set to “max.” Despite the serious content, the filmmakers try their best to lighten the film up a bit throughout. For instance, there’s a bit of meta-comedy brought into the movie by a young character who works for David Chiang. The young man seems obsessed with A Better Tomorrow, so much so that he even tries his best to quote lines of dialogue from that film. Included amongst these stolen lines are Chow-Yun Fat’s famous speech about having to forcibly drink urine, lifted directly from the original A Better Tomorrow. This character seems like the film-geek in all of us and despite seeming like a cheap way to gather approval from the built-in audience that these films attract, I would be lying if I said that it didn’t work for me. This character comes into play a good bit during the film, giving a few light touches of humor amidst all the heavier drama unfolding. You can probably accuse his latter scenes as being too humorous (for those who have seen the film, you probably know what I’m talking about), but it’s just an added blend that compliments the very different atmosphere of the film. When I say that things get heavy in this movie, I mean things get heavy. I won’t spoil anything, but the movies does feature one of the most brutal stabbings ever seen in cinema. Imagine the death of Joe Pesci in Casino, but with knives instead of baseball bats. The scene comes from out of nowhere and hits the audience hard due to the brutal nature of the violence. The rest of the deaths within the movie are often equally as bloody, but often played for entertainment rather than the shocking effect that this stabbing has. After having seen the film several times, this one stabbing is still the most memorable sequence of the entire production for me.

The direction, by all involved, tends to be handled well enough. The film remains fairly uniform and it is apparent what director handled which segments. However, the editing could have been a little tighter. As stated above, the film just isn’t very concise. Stories unfold and tie together so often that it can get confusing as to who is doing what and for what reasons. The conclusion to the film ties everything together, even if it is a bit hard to believe, but if the audience didn’t take strict mental notes they still may be left slightly confused. There’s a tiny moral to be learned after the film, but it is rather forced and seemingly hypocritical. If you watch the film and know what I’m talking about, good for you. Even with these few negative aspects at play, the cast are all pitch perfect in their roles. Danny Lee gets to really put himself out on a limb as the tough-but-not-impenetrable leading man. For a film that doesn’t appear to have been given a great deal of of time during the writing process, Lee’s role still remains a well established character. David Chiang also shines in a role that shows all of the charisma he was so well known for during his youth. He doesn’t go around picking fights throughout, but instead remains a quiet and resilient character, which works very well for him. The rest of the cast are all equally entertaining in their roles. Stephen Chow shows up in a early non-comedic role and acquits himself perfectly. He plays the token bad guy, but he shows an admirable amount of depth as he takes on a role similar to Sonny Corleone in that he displays his youthful anger instead of mature business-minded progress.

I really wish there were some way for the audience to find out who directed what within the film. Every action scene within the film is phenomenally well done, and its easy to imagine the credit going to John Woo for this. However, there is no guarantee of this. The warehouse shootout within the film is actually in my top five favorite action sequences from the entire heroic-bloodshed genre. It may not have the size of the hospital finale for Hard Boiled, but the imagination at work here trumps many of the competitors within the genre. The shot of David Chiang diving on top of a near-endless array of cans (like those you might carry gasoline in), gliding across the room with gun outstretched in what can only be seen as a balletic motion, that culminates in him coming to a stop with his handgun pressed against his enemies neck is easily a defining moment in all of Hong Kong gun-fu cinema. It’s something that is implanted directly into my brain that can only be compared to Chow Yun-Fat sliding down the staircase holding a pistol in each hand as in Hard Boiled, or the shot of Chow Yun-Fat diving backwards with guns blazing as in The Killer.

The Conclusion

In the end, this is a 50-50 type of movie. If there’s one problem with the film, it comes from the overly complicated story that prevents it from being a “great” film. However, it is incredibly fun and remains underrated amongst John Woo’s best work. I would like to see the film held in better reverance, but some audiences just do not seem to be in tune with the film. Despite this, my personal opinion has remained the same throughout the years. This is a fun bit of John Woo action that diversifies itself by the inclusion of many very non-Woo elements. For Heroic Bloodshed fans, I believe it would be a real disservice to ignore this one. I give it a solid four out of five. It isn’t perfect, but it sure does entertain.