Once a Thief
One film that doesn’t often get mentioned when it comes to John Woo’s great Hong Kong films is his 1991 film, “Once a Thief,” and it’s easy to see why. Compared to the likes of “The Killer,” “Hard-Boiled” and “Bullet in the Head,” it’s a lark. A quick, breezy action comedy about three friends who steal priceless artwork, the themes of brotherhood and loyalty are still there, and Woo’s talents for staging a sequence are top-notch, but there’s not a lot of depth of purpose and feeling to it compared to his other classic films from the time. Yes, the trio of Jim (Leslie Cheung), Joey (Chow Yun-Fat) and Cherie (Cherie Chung) have a strong bond between them, especially after Joey reappears after being presumed dead, but there isn’t the fractured friendships that came with PTSD in “Bullet in the Head” or two-sides-of-the-same-coin bromances of “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” One movie that came to mind while watching “Once a Thief” for the first time in quite some time was the recent “Now You See Me” heist capers. From a narrative standpoint, there’s nothing complex about the script by Woo, Janet Chun and Clifton Ko, but the film delivers high entertainment thanks to the charisma of its actors and the cinematic style its director infuses it with.
When I first really got into John Woo between “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off,” I went searching for whatever of his films I could, and I actually came across “Once a Thief” relatively easily. The problem is, it wasn’t his Hong Kong film but an American remake he directed for Canadian television, for which he also directed a movie called “Blackjack” starring Dolph Lundgeren. That version is interesting only in the sense that the filmmaker is remaking his own work, something few have done before (although Hitchcock is one when he remade his British thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” with James Stewart and Doris Day), and as an example of the way American studios saw Woo even after he had success with “Broken Arrow.” I think it was more Woo’s way to try and build cache with American studios that him selling out, but when you consider he only made one really unfiltered Woo film in a decade in Hollywood (“Face/Off”), it’s reflective of how he was never really able to make his mark in American cinema, despite how good he was in Hong Kong. (Worse still, his post-Hollywood career has netted few films, with only the great epic, “Red Cliff,” making its way to American theatres.) I finally saw his 1991 version of “Once a Thief,” and it is night-and-day compared to the Hollywood one. First of all, there’s the significant presence of his great star at the time, Chow Yun-Fat, who is arguably one of the most charismatic movie stars of our time, even if you have to read his dialogue (and Cheung and Chung are just as good in their roles, but come on, Chow Yun-Fat is the man). Then there’s how much freedom he seems to have in the way he constructs set pieces. It all feels very on-the-fly and natural, which is incredibly impressive considering how complicated they must be to put together. From the multi-person dance sequence to steal an important key from a mark to Joey and Jim’s acrobatics to steal one of the most valuable paintings in the world to a shootout that takes place after that heist, Woo puts all of the moving parts in order to create controlled chaos, and a wildly entertaining moviewatching experience.