| Once a Thief


Zong heng si hai

John Woo

Hong Kong, 1991


Review by Cullen Gallagher

Posted on 26 July 2012

Source Sony DVD

Categories John Woo’s Hong Kong

There are certain things you expect in a John Woo movie: fancy gunplay; top-notch action choreography; a never-ending supply of bullets; flashy clothes; slow-motion over-the-top violence; doves.

There are certain things you don’t expect in a John Woo movie: Chow Yun Fat ballroom dancing in a wheelchair; prank cakes springing from boxes; friends blowing flour into each other’s faces; microwaved soda cans catapulting flaming basketballs; fart jokes.

Coming after The Killer and Bullet in the Head and just before [Hard Boiled, some of Woo’s most iconic films, it is surprising how un-Woo Once a Thief actually is. While the film exhibits scant traces of his characteristic style (slow-motion shooting and a remarkable lack of reloading), Once a Thief more closely resembles an Olsen Twins’ post-Full House straight-to-video romp, with a few leftover MacGyver gimmicks, than the bold action thrill rides that made Woo famous.

The mythic hero-villain bond that gave The Killer its emotional and spiritual punch is supplanted by a cheesy love triangle in Once a Thief. Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung and Cherie Chung portray art thieves bound by life-long friendship. As children, they were orphans who were taken under the wing of two parental figures: a criminal and a cop. Now that the trio is all grown up, they’re still stuck in the same dichotomy: they make a living stealing art for the thief yet still cling to the cop for moral guidance. With romantic rivalries already threatening to break the group apart, they decide to make one last score before retiring forever. When the heist doesn’t go according to plan, however, the trio must figure out how to overcome romance, figure out who double-crossed them, and take revenge.

Story-wise, Once a Thief isn’t much to look at on paper; tasteless, obvious cliches abound. The bigger problem, however, is that Once a Thief isn’t much better to look at on-screen. Not only does it take nearly 45 minutes for the first big shootout, but when it happens, the choreography is incoherent, lacking the spatial geography and operatic sweep that distinguished earlier (and later) Woo films. The big finale is similarly marred by what can only be described as utter stupidity: not only the aforementioned microwave-soda-basketball-contraption, but also indoor skateboard drive-bys and fire-breathing bad guys. And for a film that purports to be about art thieves, the actual heist scenes are ludicrous and lack any of the cool badassery that one normally associates with Woo’s protagonists. Maybe it is the out-of-control revolving secret doorway in the wine cellar, or how, when they are hanging from a chandelier, the guys take the time for an ill-timed fart joke, or maybe how they peer through a glass of wine to see the invisible lasers blocking their path—but all of this seems like something from a cartoon.

Most of my complaints stem from the fact that what Woo delivered wasn’t a typical Woo product. Was Once a Thief disappointing in this respect? Most definitely. Is it possible to appreciate Once a Thief as a stylistic departure, an excursion into new territory? Yes, but only to a certain extent. If it is a departure, or an excursion, then it is a failed one. Woo isn’t able to merge the action bravura with a kinder, gentler machine gun hand. The visual gags aren’t clever, the jokes aren’t funny, the love triangle isn’t compelling, the heists aren’t gripping, and - most disappointingly - the action isn’t action-y. One can see faint vestiges of Woo’s interest in moral counterpoint in the dual cop/criminal father figures, yet it never feels as fully developed as in other Woo films (such as the gangster/policeman brothers in A Better Tomorrow).

5 years later, in 1996, after kick starting his international career in North America with Hard Target and Broken Arrow, Woo would direct a theatrical remake of Once a Thief in Canada, as well as also executive produce a television series of the same name. Not having seen either of these, I can’t comment on whether they are better or worse than the original. From a fan’s perspective, however, the original Once a Thief was enough of a blunder to break my trust and put me on Woo guard, at least for the time being. Next time I need a dove-and-guns fix, I’m reaching for The Killer.

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