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Once a Thief

Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // April 22, 2003
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted May 9, 2003 | E-mail the Author
John Woos 1994 action comedy, with the emphasis on comedy, remains an odd and annoyingly silly entry during his most creative period.

As children, Joe (Chow Yun Fat), James (Leslie Chuenng, who quite sadly committed suicide last month) and Cherie (Cherie Chung) were orphans taken in by a thief and taught the ways of the thieving underworld. Despite also being raised by a kind beat cop, with a lifetime of criminal training they grew into successful thieves and jaunt around Europe taking jobs stealing priceless paintings for wealthy art collectors. When the robbery of a reputedly cursed painting goes wrong, Joe is thought to be dead. Following his absence Jim and Cherie grow closer and marry. But then Joe reappears wheelchair-bound, supposedly paralyzed, and cast aside by their crime lord father. In a bid to project them and fight their way out of the underworld, Joe reunites with James and Cherie. Evenutally they are taking on their surrogate crime father, who'd rather see them dead than free.

The cast is all energetic enough, with Yun Fat getting the most meat out of his role while Lesile Chueng and Cherie Chung largely swim in his wake. The film is just lightweight and manic as it jarringly switches in tone from either goofiness, predictable melodrama, to lukewarm eruptions of action. It is also a real danger to reference a masterpiece film like Truffaut's Jules and Jim and be such a thin illogical cinematic concoction. I love HK cinema, but one thing is certain: when it comes to HK comedy, I have never seen one that could be described as subtle. The Chinese seem to have a penchant for the silly and mugging so obvious it makes Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis appear understated.

To give you an idea: During the heist of the cursed painting, Joe and Jim perform some acrobatics to cross a booby trapped floor. Joe hangs upside-down from a chandelier, catches Jim's legs and tosses him across, but as he grabs Jim he encourages him not to fart. Likewise, as they escape through a laser secured room, using wine glasses to see the beams, they wackily limbo underneath the final laser trigger. Thats complete with goofy music on the soundtrack and clowinsh posturing from the actors. It is just embarrassing to watch and it only gets worse.

Once A Thief sums up John Woos problem as a director- his success doesn't reflect his heart. Its odd, usually success in a filmmaker comes from personal vision or embracing some style they feel adept at. By his own account,J ohn Woo's heroic gunplay films that made him famous, A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, Bullet in the Head and Hard Boiled, are not what he really wants to make. He began his career with the standard Hong Kong gamut, a martial picture here and there and eventually he settled into lighthearted comedies and even some musicals. While these films were not a success, it was apparently the genre he enjoyed. Once A Thief was made during his HK peak, a personal pet project, and it is one he still talks about doing again. Although remade once already as a direct-to-cable film and syndicated series, Woo still talks about remaking Once a Thief yet again as a big budget Hollywood feature.

It is odd and kind of sad in a way that the stylishness that he is most adept at as a director is not what John Woo most enjoys. One thinks he would realize that since his more lightweight (or serious like Windtalkers) films were never popular that he may be best geared towards macho heroics. You cannot betray your heart, I guess. Hell, I'd love to be Salvador Dali, but I'm better at drawing cartoons. It reminds me of Sam Raimi, who in his early career amazed and was like no other with his more imaginative genre films Evil Dead 2, Darkman, Army of Darkness, but then abandoned the cult approach and style that made him famous for pedestrian thriller-drama efforts like The Gift and A Simple Plan. Not that they are terrible films, but they don't bear the same inventiveness and they could have been made by any number of directors, whereas his early films were all definitively "only could have been made by Raimi". The same goes for Woo, who since his Hollywood move seems to be content making films that largely dilute the style that made him famous.

Anyway, Once A Thief is a film that shows even in popular his HK days Woo was oddly reluctant to fully embrace the dark action dramas that made him one of cinemas notable directors. Saddled in-between Woos bleak masterpiece A Bullet in the Head and the macho gunplay epic Hard Boiled, Once a Thief remains as a flawed curiosity.

The DVD: Columbia TriStar

Picture: Widescreen Anamorphic. Print is very clean. Although there is some graininess and lack of sharpness here and there, these are mainly due to being a Hong Kong film. But, it actually benefits from the European locale and no doubt a Euro crew, which makes it looks like a slicker production than most HK films of the era. While the transfer isn't up to say Hong Kong Legends restorative efforts, Columbia present a fine transfer that is far better than the HK produced DVDs of John Woo films.

Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Cantonese or English track s with optional yellow English French or Spanish subtitles. Well, the film is silly enough in Cantonese but the English dubbing makes it even sillier. You cannot really improve older HK soundtrack s a whole lot, and this has been proven by bad 5.1 remixes coming out of Hong Kong, the UK, and the US. Therefore the 2.0 tracks here are fine and present the rather thin sound score about as good as it can get.

Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailers for Wasabi, XXX and a very cheesy Columbia combo trailer for Once a Theif and Ringo Lam's Full Contact.

Conclusion: A minor Woo effort given a minor DVD treatment- no extras but a nice image an sound job that should please fans. Unless you are a John Woo/Yun Fat completeist, I cannot really see any incentive to buy the movie. It is one of those "What were they thinking?" films best reserved as a rental.

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