After two of his best Hong Kong classics, The Killer and Bullet in the Head, failed to ignite the local box office (both only became hits after international distribution), John Woo made a bid for popular comeback with the frothy and light-hearted crime caper Once a Thief. The ploy worked. The film was a big hit, restoring his reputation and industry clout, and allowed him enough sway to make his legendary swan song Hard Boiled before exiting for Hollywood.
Reuniting A Better Tomorrow co-stars Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung as mischievous art thieves on the prowl in Europe, Once a Thief follows the mold of previous romantic crime comedy classics such as Trouble in Paradise or Charade pretty closely at first, maintaining a light tone with some humorous hi-jinks and a non-threatening love triangle, before taking a sudden turn in the second half into full-bore John Woo action melodrama territory. Chow and Cheung play wildly successful thieves Joe and Jim, who despite promises to mutual love interest Cherie aren't yet ready for retirement. The trio has an Oliver Twist-like backstory involving their adoption as children by a master thief who teaches them the ways of the streets, which leads eventually to their life of high-end crime. Hired for a big job that piques their interest, the men soon find themselves double-crossed and involved in a botched getaway that leaves Joe crippled. Naturally, payback is in order, and so the two devise novel ways to steal a famous painting back for themselves and teach their former father figure a lesson.
The first part of the movie is primarily a romantic comedy with a crime backdrop. The over-the-top violent gunfights, acrobatic stunts, and other trappings of the John Woo formula don't start until the second half, and the two parts of the film don't entirely mesh. The picture also turns incredibly silly in places, attempting to add slapstick humor and Jackie Chan-style stunts and gags that seem to come from out of nowhere. The big climax throws in an unexplained evil henchman who appears to be a magician and throws around deadly playing cards and other sleight-of-hand tricks, and there's also a death-by-dartboard gimmick. Chow looks to be having a lot of fun, hammily overplaying his role in both the serious and comedic parts.
Once a Thief is not a very characteristic film for Woo, feeling a lot like a hired gun project. It's not one of his better pictures, but does offer enough of his trademark touches and genuine entertainment value to be worthy of repeat viewings, and it's certainly more fun than most of his later American movies.
Fortune Star's remastered special edition of Once a Thief is presented in the NTSC video format with no region coding and should function in any American DVD player. The packaging comes in a clear slipcase with a cardboard replica of the painting from the movie (with nipples painted out) inside.
The movie has been remastered into its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The opening credits are very grainy, but fortunately the image clears up after that. The movie has some hazy photography, but taking that into account this is a sharp and clear video transfer. Judging by the shades of lipstick and the characters' red sports car, colors seem to be well reproduced, as are flesh tones. Print damage and age related defects have been cleaned up. There is no edge enhancement ringing, and compression quality is adequate. This is a fine video transfer for a movie of this age and origin.
Fortune Star once again messes around with an older soundtrack, remixing the movie's original monaural audio into Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. The results are better than average for their recent efforts.
The music has been expanded nicely across the front soundstage, the Cantonese dialogue is perfectly clear, and the action scenes have a lot of satisfying bass. Many of the old library sound effects have been replaced with clearer substitutes, mostly for the better. Gunshots have nice kick to them. Directional effects to the rear soundstage are not too aggressive, except during the shootout scenes where bullets fly in every direction. Unfortunately, dialogue sync isn't very good, but I expect that the original ADR recordings didn't give this much effort in the first place.
Of the two 5.1 mixes, the DTS track has a slight edge in clarity and fidelity. The original sound mix is also available in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. It sounds extremely flat and dull, and has even worse sync. I certainly understand those who hold a purist attitude toward preserving the original soundtrack, but frankly movies like this never put much effort into their sound mixes when they were first made, and any attempt to improve them is a good thing in my book. I recommend going with the DTS remix.
Subtitles are available in English or Chinese (both Traditional and Simplified). The English translation is merely adequate; it's coherent but has many annoying grammatical errors. Subtitles also appear during English dialogue scenes.
The disc offers your choice of English or Chinese menus. Like most of Fortune Star's catalog remasters, the DVD includes the original and cheesy newly-edited trailers, both in anamorphic widescreen. Also available is a photo gallery that can be viewed either as still images or part of an automated slide show.
The main bonus feature here is a 7-minute interview with supporting actor Kent Tsang (in Cantonese with optional English subtitles) discussing his experience working on the film and with Woo in general. It's a nice inclusion, but not terribly revelatory.
No ROM supplements have been included.
Once a Thief may not be one of John Woo's best Hong Kong classics, but it's a fun piece of action-comedy entertainment that holds a lot of rewatching potential. Fortune Star delivers another solid remastering job with this one. Recommended.
Armour of God Series
A Better Tomorrow Trilogy
A Chinese Ghost Story Trilogy
Infernal Affairs Trilogy
John Woo Collection
Once Upon a Time in China I, II, III
Police Story Trilogy
Project A Series
Sammo Hung Action Collection