For die-hard fans of The
Killer and Hard Boiled, this action-comedy can
be baffling. He eschews his trademark blood-soaked brotherhood
for sunny locations, oddball comedy and (gasp!) a love triangle.
Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Chung and
Leslie Cheung play three orphans who grew up together under
the auspices of adopted father Kenneth Tsang Kong. Tsang
also taught them how to be theives, and despite falling
in with kindly cop Paul Chu Kong, the three grew up to be
high-tech, high-stakes art thieves who terrorize the French
Riveria and, presumably, museum curators everywhere. Chow
eventually wants to leave the life, but their final score
goes awry when a double-cross occurs. Chow appears to perish
in a car accident, and Cherie is heartbroken at losing her
Still, Leslie and Cherie must
go on without Chow, and eventually begin their own romantic
liason. Big surprise: Chow survived, though he's now confined
to wheelchair. Despite that setback, and the newly-complicated
romantic tension, the trio go about planning a new heist,
though things aren't what they appear to be.
Since this is a John Woo film,
there is some gunplay, but it's remarkably bloodless and
kid-friendly. There are some nice acrobatics and slow-motion,
but the usual shots of bullets ripping through bodies are
gone. Instead, we get shots of Leslie Cheung's hair flowing
in slow-motion, or Chow Yun-Fat making fart jokes. Yep,
there's comedy aplenty in this John Woo flick, and a lot
of it simply makes no sense at all. During a heist, Chow
and Leslie do a limbo underneath a laser security beam.
Why? No reason at all. Stephen Chow would be proud.
With the abundance of strange
comedy, this film can be as alienating as they come. However,
Woo makes sure to provide his usual melodrama and well-choreographed
set pieces (the heist scenes are actually not bad), and
his suggestive homoeroticism doesn't get ignored, either.
Woo throws in something for everyone, but the result is
uneven and filled with ill-fitting variety. It's like your
typical Lunar New Year comedy. Or a salad.
Given all that, the film
can only be described with one phrase: mixed bag. Once
a Thief is a movie of many different parts, and none
of them really belong in the same film. The gorgeous foreign
locations and attractive cinematography recall Alfred Hitchock/Cary
Grant collaborations. The three stars of Once a Thief are right at home in that setting (with Cherie Chung winning
the glamour award), but sophomoric humor and just plain
weirdness recalls Wong Jing/Stephen Chow mo lei tau.
There is a great deal of fun to be had here, and the utter
bizarreness can be fascinating, but is this really a good
film? For comparison's sake, consider this: did Bruce Willis' Hudson Hawk give you the uncontrollable giggles?
If so, then Once a Thief will prove worthy of your
time. (Kozo 1993/2002)