John Woo goes into light-hearted (but still heroic bloodshed) mode in this rather pretentious heist-comedy with jarring tonal shifts.
Dir. John Woo
1991 | Hong Kong | Action/Crime/Comedy | 108 mins | 1.85:1 | Cantonese & English
NC16 (Netflix rating) for some violence
Cast: Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Chung
Plot: Three best friends are high end art thieves, who come into trouble when a love-triangle forms between them.
Source: Fortune Star
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Once a Thief is entertaining but it is not vintage John Woo, although it had much more box-office success than his previous two directorial outings in The Killer (1989) and Bullet in the Head (1990), thus paving way for him to make his final pre-Hollywood movie, Hard Boiled (1992).
Once a Thief is best seen as an action-comedy, a hybrid undertaking that unfortunately doesn’t really go anywhere. It is light-hearted for sure but still sufficiently in heroic bloodshed mode that Woo is famous for e.g. bloody gunfights, brotherhood and camaraderie.
The result is rather pretentious, and nobody would exemplify this more than Chow Yun-Fat whose performance borders on the ludicrous in the final act.
“Did I make you waste your tears over me?”
Together with Leslie Cheung, Chow plays a master thief of rare art paintings, where they team up to deliver the ‘goods’ to rich-paying clients. Cherie Chung plays the pretty lady in between the two men in a loose love triangle setup.
There is a subplot involving flashbacks and ‘fathers’, biological or otherwise, but while it advances the narrative considerably, it doesn’t really work dramatically.
The film’s jarring tonal shifts—from hardcore action where lives are at stake to casual, nonchalant comedy, often in the middle of the action—is either a showcase of Woo’s versatility (not quite to me), or a last resort to make the movie more audience-friendly.
Once a Thief is part ‘Indiana Jones’-style heist flick, part ‘Jules and Jim’-type movie—throw in Woo’s heroic bloodshed and a tinge of Jackie Chan-style kung fu comedy, and you get an equivalent of a messy buffet spread. Lots to savour, but difficult to take seriously.