Once a Thief

One of John Woo's mellower stylish efforts with a great cast of Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung and Cherie Chung. It is primarily a charming Cary Grantish /Hitchcockian styled robbery film but with some heavy dollops of gunplay and violence thrown in. The plot revolves around the three protagonists who have been together since childhood and now as adults have become very proficient and elegant thieves. The chemistry between these three is a pleasure to watch.
CYF has never been more charismatic and the film is great fun from Paris to HK and from start to finish - (well actually the very end is quite silly) . Not as well liked by most Woo fans as his other collaborations with CYF due to a relative lack of gunplay. Even though the action comes in smaller doses, it is fast moving and fun to watch. The three major robberies are all done with great panache and style. This film refuses to take itself very seriously and it is enjoyable to be along for the ride.

Don't confuse it with the TV version also directed by Woo - different actors, different plot, and different quality.

My rating for this film:8.5



Reviewed by YTSL

At the risk of calling upon the wrath of or inducing disbelief in many of my fellow Hong Kong movie fans, I must admit to not being generally all that mesmerized by the efforts of John Woo, the master of "Heroic Bloodshed", and Chow Yun Fat, the actor he has cast in so many of his productions.  Some people might ascribe this to my not (yet) having viewed what is often considered their best (collaborative) work, "The Killer".  This may (well) be so (N.B. I will take the opportunity presented here to stress that I am still pretty new to the wonderful world of Hong Kong movies).

What I do strongly suspect is that I am one of the few people who was attracted to watching ONCE A THIEF more because of Leslie Cheung (None of the twelve movies I have seen him in have rated as less than a 7 out of 10 in my mind) and Cherie Chung ("Peking Opera Blues", in which she emerges from the long shadow of the amazing Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia upon repeated viewing (!), is my all-time favorite film.  Period).   It would also not be too surprising if this extremely stylish, largely fun, pretty frivolous Chinese New Year 1991 offering might be more enjoyable for those without preconceived expectations based on the generally dark and fairly humorless Hollywood (e.g., "Hard Target", "The Replacement Killers", "Face/Off") output of Messrs. Woo and Chow.
This being a John Woo film (he wrote its story as well as helmed the production) after all is said and done, there is some violence, gun battles, explosions, bloodshed and deaths in ONCE A THIEF.  However, it is the individual charm and group chemistry of the three leads (Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung and Cherie Chung) that makes ONCE A THIEF the classy -- even if often light and breezy -- piece of work it is.  In a similar vein:  The hole-filled story which centers on a high-living trio of international art thieves (Chow plays the affable Joe; Leslie portrays Jim with quite a bit of panache; and Cherie enchants as Cherie!) who call a cruel man (convincingly portrayed by Kenneth Tsang) "father" -- and have a kindly policeman (sympathetically played by Paul Chu Kong) as their "god-father" -- is hardly a classic one.  Alternatively, there is a "must see" beautifully choreographed and performed dance sequence during which Joe is in a wheelchair, Cherie filches and whisks away a key from an unsuspecting man, and Jim is just so Leslie (!), which IMHO belongs in a(ny) Hong Kong motion picture highlights compilation.
In many ways, ONCE A THIEF is a frankly often silly as well as an improbable piece of festive fluff.  Even so, there is a strong chance that the good vibes and humor that this indulgent big budget (by Hong
Kong standards) movie exudes will prove to be irresistible.  For example:  I am extremely skeptical that wine and cards can really do what they are used to do in the movie but actually didn't care for the duration of the movie because the visual effects to which they contributed as elements were SO cool!  I even found myself laughing and excusing -- rather than getting irritated by -- many of this film's subtitling errors (some of which seem to have been caused by attempts to metaphorically rather than literally translate Cantonese comments into English sayings) and peculiarities (at one point, Joe is very clearly calling out (for) "Ching-Hsia" but the English subtitles have him talking about "Brigitte Bardot"...prompting me to wonder whether in Hong Kong, all Brigittes are known in Chinese in this way!).
In conclusion:  While this movie might not be for everyone, I personally give a hearty Siskel and Ebert-style "thumbs up" to what has been described as John Woo's most bloodless action film, hope that Chow Yun Fat will be allowed to show this amiable-yet-still-cool part of his repertoire in his future (Hollywood) work, rue knowing that this was Cherie Chung's last film, and am immensely glad that Leslie Cheung continues to be a part of the Hong Kong movie as well as Cantopop scene.

My rating for the film:  8.