Once A Thief (1991)

November 17, 2003 • Film, Reviews

Director: John Woo (Ng Yu-Sam)
Script: John Woo (Ng Yu-Sam)
Producer: Terence Chang (Cheung Ka-Chun)


Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, Cherie Chung Cho-Hung, Paul Chu Kong, Kenneth Tsang Kong, John Woo (Ng Yu-Sam)

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Running Time: 108 min

Nominated, 11th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Picture; Best Director (John Woo); Best Actor (Chow Yun-fat); Best Editing (David Wu Dai-Wai)

Plot: Two artful dodgers pull a spectacular heist. Raised by a leader of an international burglary ring, they are trapped in a complicated plot of betrayal and Revenge. Nominated Best Film at the 1991 Hong Kong Film Awards.

OAT2John Woo directed this comic caper movie after leaving Tsui Hark’s stable and founding his own production company. Bereft of action choreographer Ching Siu-Tung and some of Hark’s talented craftspeople (whose skill was witnessed in The Killer), Woo struggled with his action choreography for a while. Bullet in the Head’s choreography was less “bullet ballet” than a collection of slaughter shots, but by this movie Woo had worked out some of the kinks in the system. His next project, Hard-Boiled, was simply the most breathtakingly choreographed series of gun battles in world cinema so far.

In this one, though, the shootouts are less frequent. Woo offsets them with a series of comic thefts, car chases, and fisticuff scenes. The result is very breezy and silly, a less serious nod to the old Mission: Impossible capers.

OAT1Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Chung are paired up on screen yet again, but unlike earlier such rendevous (Wild Search, The Witch From Nepal, etc.), there is no real romantic spark. However, Leslie Cheung is on hand to fill in. As one reviewer said, “I couldn’t tell who Chow Yun-Fat was in love with, Cherie or Leslie. (?)” All together, they play a trio of high-profile art thieves, stealing priceless paintings from museums and castles in France. There are some lovely flashbacks of their tramautic childhood spent under the auspices of an extremely cruel, Fagan-like character who teaches them pickpocketing and slight-of-hand techniques, which Chow and Leslie put to good use throughout the movie. The basic plot involves this trio’s attempts to steal a painting, and Chow Yun-Fat’s supposed death. At this point, Cherie and Leslie have gotten together (she and Chow were involved before the spectacular car crash that presumably killed Chow), when Chow unexpectedly returns in a wheelchair. The trio shakily teams up again in an attempt to round up a bunch of money and get even with their evil foster father. This involves Chow and Cherie as waltzing pickpockets (him in the wheelchair, her on her feet), Chow and Leslie playing soccer with plastic explosives, and further such memorable scenes. Ultimately, this movie comes across as a collection of such memorable scenes, rather than anything groundbreaking. It’s fun, though. Which is ultimately what they were trying to do here.



“”Once a Thief” is simply pure, unadulterated fun. Once again, John Woo proves that he could teach American cinema a great deal.”

—Christopher E. Meadows, Rotten Tomatoes/

“Very, very slick. “Once a Thief” is one of Woo’s more underrated films. It hasn’t received the attention it deserves, but if you can get a hold of it, don’t hesitate to rent it, or buy it.”
—James H,
“The flavour here is light and zesty: it feels like it should come from the sixties, where the good guys are cool, the art is valuable, and the bad guys are buffoons. The film has a flash and bravado that leaves you wanting to dress up in evening clothes and go steal something,”

—Alison Jobling, Heroic Cinema

“A class production in every department.”
—Andrew Saroch, Dragon’s Den UK

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