The penultimate HK picture of action-tastemaker John Woo before he was signed up to conquer Hollywood-land in 1993, ONCE A THIEF reunites Chow and Cheung from Woo's most esteemed A BETTER TOMORROW franchise, teams up with Cherie Chung (who would soon get married and retire entirely from the screen) in this ultra-breezy ménage-à-trois caper, which, at the start, sets its adventurous background in an exotic France, then after the midstream, routinely retreats back to Woo's turf to anticipate its bullets-flying homestretch.
The film is super fun to watch, on account of the charming facade of those three Hong Kong screen icons. Joe (Chow), Jim (Cheung) and Cherie (Chung) are three orphans raised and trained by a sinister crime boss Chow (Tsang) as professional thieves, meanwhile they also befriend with another father figure, the kind-hearted cop Chu (Chu). Joe and Cherie become an item when they grow up, and Jim holds back his affection to Cherie. In France, they successfully steal a Modigliani's painting, but their next mission goes amiss, resulting in a heavily-armed skirmish and Joe is presumably dead. Jim and Cherie return to Hong Kong in despondence, and their romance blossoms, then a wheelchair-bound Joe shows up unexpectedly and reticently gives them his blessing. The trio reconcile like old-times, only now Joe is the third wheel in their good rapport. More urgently, they have to settle the old scores with Chow, and Woo leaves a very wayward twist to temper the picture's trigger-happy excess, as if he tellingly tips off audience that don't take the story seriously, it is a jolly ride, just enjoy the experience.
The emotion tangle of the triangular relationship could have been developed into a more complex and heart-tugging structure since they are all able players, although a cordially comic gaiety seeps thoroughly into the narrative thanks to Chow's chameleon-like swagger (including his wheelchair dance routine) and Cheung's wet-behind-the-ears ardor, which leaves Chung most of the time like a pretty foil. Also the good dad/bad father trope doesn't really register under such black-or-white and cartoonish impetuosity.
The action set pieces are flashy at their best, churning-out at their worst. They may look dashing at first glance, but soon plummet into passable effects borne out of a shambolic manufacture, a sign of the times of HK film production. One particularly WTF scene materializes when Jim sawing a wooden plank under the bottom of a barreling lorry, which is transporting precious artworks of Musée du Louvre, on which planet, the lorry would have a wooden bottom? Which instantly snatches audience out of the credentials of the trio's teamwork. Moreover Violet Lam's synthetic score doesn't help, it is sheer obtrusively objectionable to one's ears.
ONCE A THIEF is a jaunty divergence from John Woo's more polished, bullet-ridden and heroic fraternity bravura, but shackled by the incoherent attribute between a heads-in-the-clouds lark and a dead-serious survival strategy at gunpoint, the entire experience is a mixed-bag of thrill, embarrassment and frivolousness, often in a cyclical fashion, before one's investment runs dry.
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