Everyone Wants a Gun Like the Killer: Once a Thief (1991)

Another Friday and like drunk girls at a bar it’s time to go “Wooooooo”,  but instead of  being a war cry exclaimed on the way to a mechanical bull, when someone goes Woo around here, it better be preceded by John. That’s right, we’re back again with another installment of Everyone Wants a Gun Like The Killer, and this week’s film might be Woo’s 23rd, but it’s also…
Once a Thief (1991) starring Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung, Kong Chu, and Kenneth Tsang. Directed by John Woo. 

A trio of art thieves (Yun-Fat, Cheung, and Chung) are the best in the business, but when they’re tasked with stealing a cursed painting, everything starts to fall apart. Joe (Yun-Fat) is thought dead in a fiery explosion, and Jim (Cheung) and Cherie (Chung) move on with their lives. When Joe reappears, he’s paralyzed from the waist down, but when they get one more chance to steal the painting that lead them to disaster, the gang get back together for one more heist. 

The Bugg Picture

After a career in martial arts films lead to dramas and comedies, John Woo finally felt like he was hitting his stride with films like The Killer (1989) and Bullet in the Head (1990), but when those films were poorly received, he looked for a different idea for his next picture. So Woo along with writer Clifton Ko crafted a script that could merge Woo’s action oriented scenes with some very broad comedy. Hence, Once a Thief was born. 

The film starts off with a clever little sequence wherein the thieves heist a painting out of the back of a moving 18 wheeler. It’s a thrilling start to the film even if it ends with Chow Yun-Fat making his escape via parasailing. Right after that you get your first hint that this is not your typical John Woo film. The trio takes off for a drive though the city in a little red sports car while Yun-Fat cracks one bad joke after another. Thankfully, it’s not long until our hero’s are off on another heist, and the action begins to ramp up again, and these sequences of burglary are the highlight of the film. Each one get’s progressively more entertaining, and really kept me wrapped up in the film. 

Now, while the action gradually gets more exciting, the jokes get progressively worse. In fact by the end of the film (specifically the last five minutes), I almost felt embarrassed for the actors. Thankfully Leslie Cheung and Cherie Chung manage to keep themselves out of the foolishness, and instead the comedy mostly struggles out of the mouth of Chow Yun-Fat. Now I love Chow. A Lot. You’ll find that out in upcoming weeks, but in this film, I just needed him to stop. I understand that he’s supposed to be this devil may care guy who verges on alienating his friends because he can’t take life seriously, but he verged on alienating me. In fairness, some of the bits were quite funny like Chow ballroom dancing in a wheelchair, but Woo felt the need to cram so many jokes in the film that they became less and less effective as time wore on. I love corny jokes as much as the next guy, even if the next guy is Henny Youngman, but still it was too much for my taste.  

On the other hand Leslie Cheung’s Jim is the model of seriousness, but that’s about all we know about him. Cheung, who sadly committed suicide a few years back, isn’t given much else to work with though. We know he’s professional, that he has feelings for Cherie, and he can ride the hell out of a motorcycle, but never much more. It’s too bad because with Chow wisecracking his way though life it sure would have been nice to have an affable character who was easily relatable. Jim also turns out to be a cold blooded killer later in the film, and it was surprising to me. With the little I’d seen on his personality, I would have never imagined he’d be breaking an innocent security guard‘s neck with his bare hands. 

Cherie Chung, the one time Miss Hong Kong runner up and veteran of 46 films, is as pretty as a picture in Once a Thief, and while she gets a tad more development than Cheung’s Jim, it could have been any beautiful actress in the role. I do have to say that she is stunning, but the parade of early Nineties fashions she wears are horrid. Ladies, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, high waited pants look terrible on everyone. When they don’t even flatter Ms. Chung, then you know I’m speaking the truth. 

So with two fairly flat characters and Chow Yun-Fat shedding his badass image for that of a buffoon, it was something of a departure for not only the director but the actors as well. Many of John Woo’s films feel driven by characterization, and it surprised me that he put all that to the side to fill the film with light comedy. Well, not just light comedy, but action as well. The final fight of the film is worth the price of admission alone to check out the magician henchman and his deadly deck of cards. Doesn’t sound very scary, but these cards were sharper than anything Ron Popeil ever hawked. 

In the end, Once a Thief is an enjoyable film, although uneven. The jokes are stale and corny, the pacing in the middle of the film is terrible, and what action there is comes far too late in the picture to really capture the imagination. You do have all the Woo motifs on display though so look out for motorcycles, birds, and slow motion to all come into play. Once a Thief was such a success that it allowed him to make the action epic he wanted to make, Hard Boiled (look for that review next week). I will have to say this film Once a Thief, it is far and away better than Woo’s own TV based remake of the film in 1996 as a pilot to a doomed series. 

If you’re a John Woo fan, then this film will end up being required viewing, but be warned. Once a Thief is a bit like eating the wrong thing when you’ve got your mouth fixed for something else. Woo’s other films are like a fine steak; bloody, seasoned to perfection, and you can really sink your teeth into it, but Once a Thief is more like candy. It’s pretty nice while you have it, but afterwards, it just leaves you wanting something else.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. I love this one. Different for Woo and Chow being more of a comedy. what makes it even more unintentionally hilarious is the bad sub title work that I have on my copy. Precious lines like "you're cheating you must have aids" constantly pop up. I think the other lead guy committed suicide unfortunately.


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