Tom Cruise had teenage boys wearing Ray-Bans in the stormiest weather, and Don Johnson had 'em sporting espadrilles sans socks - even when the thermometer dipped well below freezing.
Hong Kong's latest film export, Chow Yun-Fat, bested both Americans when it came to influencing style. When he first went bad in John Woo's breakthrough film, 1996's "A Better Tomorrow," Chow had all of Hong Kong - not to mention an up-and-coming video-store clerk named Quentin Tarantino - sporting designer sunglasses and trenchcoats during the city's muggiest summer.This and more than 70 other action films established Chow as a first-rate gunslinger. The too-often mentioned phrase "action ballet" is less attributable to Woo than to Chow: With handgun in each fist and a graceful spinning flourish in every move, Chow is the Baryshnikov of bullets.
His first American effort, "The Replacement Killers," co-starring Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, introduces him the the mass American moviegoing public. For the uninitiated, here are some of Chow's most famous films (all are available on video):
- "A Better Tomorrow" ("I, II, and III") (1986, 1987, 1989). The first in the series stars Chow as a counterfeiter named Mark Gor. Gor's partner, Ho, has a brother named Kit on the police force. Through a series of bloody events, the three of them are sucked into a deadly underworld war; Gor doesn't come back. In the second one, helmed by Woo again, Chow is Gor's twin brother, Ken, and they fight the crime syndicate again. Part three, directed by Tsui Hark, is the prequel to one where a younger Mark Gor tries to help his father and best friend escape from Vietnam.
- "City on Fire" (1987). Same year, similar name, but this time Chow's back on top - or, undercover, as it were. He infiltrates a gang of robbers but is torn when he becomes friends with one of them. This Hong Kong award-winner (best picture and best actor for Chow) is an acknowledged influence for Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."
- "The Killer" (1989). This definitive Woo and Chow vehicle features handguns with bottomless clips. Chow plays an assassin who accidently blinds a nightclub singer and takes it upon himself to take care of her. Danny Lee plays the cop assigned to hunt the killer down, but in the process they develop respect for each other.
- "Hard-Boiled" (1992). Chow is Tequila, a cop desperate to avenge his partner's death. His boss places an undercover agent (Tony Leung) inside the triad organization that Tequila wants to take down. In the end, Leung and Chow team up for a shootout inside a hospital. A highlight comes when a baby helps out by dousing a fire on Chow's pants leg.
- "God of Gamblers" (1989). This film banks on Chow's suaveness, yet also lets him show a comic side. He's a renowned gambler who can never lose at any game. But through a series of events, the God of Gamblers incurs a head injury that leaves him acting like a young child. A con man takes him in, names him Chocolate and takes advantage of his gambling skills. Goofier and less action-oriented than his other films, but required viewing for Chow fanatics. (A sequel followed, "God of Gamblers II.")