Sony // 1990 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Kevin Lee (Retired) // June 19th, 2003
They only stop to reload.
By the time 1994 rolled around, John Woo had already established himself as the premiere action director in Hong Kong. He'd certainly gained notice with A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, but there are those who never realized he'd ventured into comedy. At this point in Woo's career, he'd just completed the disturbing Vietnam War epic A Bullet in the Head and was still a few years away from Hard-Boiled and his egress to Hollywood. With Bullet being such a dark film, what better way to get over it than doing a more light-hearted romp without sacrificing the brilliant scenes of gunplay that had made Woo's name? Enter Once a Thief, a film that reunited the principles from A Better Tomorrow, Chow Yun-Fat (The Killer, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the late Leslie Cheung (A Chinese Ghost Story), with Woo. Once a Thief was once only available on a sub-par DVD offering by Tai Seng Video, but now it's been offered on a sub-par DVD by Columbia TriStar.
Joe (Chow), Jim (Cheung), and Cherie (Cherie Chung) have been together since they were children when their adopted father Chow (Kenneth Tsang) taught them how to steal to survive on the streets. Seeing their plight, they fall under the protection of a good-hearted cop, Chu (Chu Kong), who comes to be the childrens' "godfather." All grown up, the children have turned into renowned art thieves, while Joe and Cherie are now linked romantically. After pulling off a major heist in Paris, they are given a once in a lifetime opportunity: to steal a "cursed" painting for more money than they'd ever imagine. They plan on forgetting about the job, but Jim has other ideas. Joe goes to bail his "brother" out of trouble, and things go horribly wrong during the getaway. The painting is lost and Joe is thought dead after a terrifying explosion. Time passes and Jim and Cherie return to Hong Kong. Life goes on as a suppressed romance begins to blossom, but everything gets turned upside down when Joe returns, now bound to a wheelchair. Of course, there's the promise of just "one more job" to set every up financially and allow the trio to leave Hong Kong for a better life in the United States. But how will this new endeavor sit with either of their fathers?
Once a Thief is an oddity in John Woo's oeuvre. As I mentioned above, he'd wanted a departure of sorts from the darkness of films like The Killer and Bullet in the Head, so there was a conscious decision to make Once a Thief more of a romantic comedy than a crime thriller. Don't get me wrong -- there are plenty of bullets to go around in Once a Thief, but a viewer will get more bang for the buck out of other Woo efforts. Woo had, with less success, attempted comedy in the past, but this is the first time he'd tried to combine it with his more extreme action style. Compromises were made. There are really only two major scenes of gunplay in the entire film, and the whole slow motion style used (and sometimes overused) by Woo is pretty much gone. In its stead, Woo has replaced these elements with comedy pieces that were never above venturing into the area of slapstick. This certainly seems strange if you're more familiar with Woo's more well known works, but it does manage to show off his versatility as well as the versatility of the talented Chow Yun-Fat, who seems to have had a great amount of fun mugging for the camera more often than running through muzzle flashes.
To a degree, this is easily the greatest fault of Once a Thief, as Woo just seems unable to attain the proper balance between comedy and action. While there have been a great many comedy-action capers that have succeeded (Lethal Weapon, for example), it's because the two elements are intermingled. Woo, however doesn't attempt this mingling of concepts: action scenes are action scenes and comedy scenes are comedy scenes, and nowhere in the middle shall they meet. This leads to a lack of focus and an uneven tone throughout the film, which is rather unfortunate because the story itself is quite compelling.
One of the elements I love about Woo's films is his blurring of the lines between good and evil and his exploration of these elements. Woo has always managed to approach this in new and unique manners, such as pitting a cop who crosses the line against a cop who's gone too far undercover against a ruthless mercenary with a sense of honor (Hard-Boiled), or going all the way overboard and actually having the noble protagonist and hedonistic antagonist switch identities (Face/Off). In the case of Once a Thief, this theme is explored through the identities of the two fathers, one a crime lord and the other a cop, who battle for the souls of their charges. The children have grown up with a moral sense, but stick to the life of crime that they've been taught to make ends meet. There's always the promise that they're planning on retiring from their lives of crime, but there's always that promise of just one more job.
Woo admits to being heavily inspired by Western film, and has been known to occasionally pay homage to some of his favorite movies. There are a few scenes in Once a Thief where Woo has slyly placed tributes to The Godfather and (possibly) Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein (or maybe it was Young Frankenstein). It's kind of a strange irony that there are so many younger Western film directors that have been inspired by Woo's over-the-top style while Woo was heavily inspired by greats like John Ford and Coppola.
When it all comes together, Once a Thief ultimately lacks the brilliant cinematography exhibited in The Killer, the hard-edged action of Hard-Boiled, and the emotional impact of A Better Tomorrow, making it a second-rate film in Woo's canon. Still, it's a very watchable and entertaining film if you can get by some of the flaws.
The technical specs of the DVD are somewhat disappointing. Columbia TriStar has managed to provide an anamorphic transfer (you can choose between widescreen and full screen), though this transfer is not going to win any awards. If you want an idea of what Once a Thief looks like, stare intently at your computer monitor for a few minutes. Keep staring. Staring. Staring. Now, release a huge swarm of gnats in front of the monitor and continue staring. Personally, I blame these problems on the source material, but there doesn't seem to have been much effort into cleaning up the video. For your benefit, however, Columbia has added in some of their trademark edge enhancement just to remind you that this is a Columbia DVD. The sound is a sadly flat 2.0 channel stereo mix, which I also blame on the source material. As far as extras and special features go, there are none save a theatrical trailer. Woo hoo! What I'm trying to say is, this disc won't rock your world, but if you're a fan of John Woo you're going to probably want it anyway.
Once a Thief may not be the classic that some of Woo's other films are, but it is certainly worth a look. I'm really only able to recommend this to Woo's legion of fans, however. Also, make sure you don't confuse this with the not-so-good remake that was filmed in Canada.
Once a Thief will be free to go once somebody returns my wallet.
Review content copyright © 2003 Kevin Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Cantonese)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer