Once a Thief is something unexpected from John Woo. It’s a light-hearted comedy with some action to spice it up this is a polar opposite of what I’ve come to expect from Woo. Usually his films are full of action with some comedy to spice it up. Once a Thief is a nice surprise from Woo, the director that I admire most.
First, don’t get the cheesy, though made by Woo, American re-make mixed up with this classic Hong Kong version. Although the American re-make has some elements of this version, it doesn’t live up to what the Hong Kong version has accomplished.
Once a Thief is about three thieves working together to steal exquisite artwork from all around the world. They were raised as thieves by a mean spirited and violent “father.” The three thieves are Jim (Leslie Cheung), Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), and Cherie (Cherie Chung). Jim and Joe have their eyes on Cherie. Joe the charming womanizer seems to have Cherie’s attention, much to the dismay of the more sensitive and caring Jim. This love triangle is only a part of the multi-layered story told by Once a Thief. The major portion of the movie is spent on Jim, Joe, and Cherie vying for a painting that their much-hated “father” has. They want to steal the painting, their father wants to sell the painting, and the three thieves mysterious godfather has something else in mind.
Here’s my warning for those of you who are looking for a John Woo film in the style of The Killer and Hard-Boiled: This film is not action filled like those. If you’re looking for action, try out Woo’s other films. If you’re looking to see what Woo can do when he’s not doing action, look here. Woo, who did comedy before striking it big with the action genre, handles this film superbly. His sense of comedic timing is excellent. Couple this with Chow Yun-Fat’s comedic timing and hilarious onscreen persona, and you have a film that is surprisingly watchable.
Chow, whom I’m used to seeing in more serious roles (Hard-Boiled, The Corrupter), shows that he’s not just a dramatic actor. He is hilarious in Once a Thief and has many laugh-out-loud moments in the film. Cheung and Chung also have their moments, but none like the ones that Chow is given.
There are some standout moments in Once a Thief to look for; first and foremost is the sequence in which Jim and Joe go into a cellar to steal the coveted painting. This is a mix of pure action and comedy that will have you at the edge of your seats laughing. Another moment comes late in the film when Chow Yun-Fat shows off his pseudo-kung fu skills in one of the funniest and silliest fight sequences that I’ve seen.
Don’t Miss Once a Thief; this is a John Woo film that shows that he isn’t strictly and action director. I was able to find Once a Thief on DVD. If you don’t have a DVD player you can still find this one on video.