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Once A Thief

cast: Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung, Cherie Chung, and Kenneth Tsang
director: John Woo
104 minutes (15) 1990
widescreen ratio 16:9
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by John Percival
This Hong Kong action comedy thriller from John Woo takes on the heist genre. Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), Jim (Leslie Cheung) and Cherie (Cherie Cheung) were three street orphans adopted by Triad kingpin Chow and taught by him how to survive by stealing. Whilst caught in the act of stealing bread they are given some moral guidance by a kind cop who becomes a surrogate father to them. Years later, as adults, the trio have become renowned art thieves. Joe and Cherie are romantically linked and after pulling off a daring raid in Paris they are given the opportunity to steal a special painting for a very big reward.

With films like Mission: Impossible 2, Face/Off and Broken Arrow, John Woo has secured his place as one of Hollywood's premier action film directors. Once A Thief was filmed when Woo held the same prominence as a Hong Kong director and there are buckets of action in this film. There are huge elaborate chases, fight scenes and shoot outs, which stand up pretty well, although seemingly low-budget by today's standards.

The story appears to draw on a number of emotions. There is the bond that the trio feel for each other, their respect for the Fagin-like Chow despite his attempts to kill them and, of course, the sentiment for their moral guardian, the cop. The dynamic between the three main characters is exaggerated many times but when a botched heist leaves two believing the third member is dead they do seem to get on with their lives rather easily. However, as a unit, they work well, placing plans into action fluidly with martial arts grace.

A serious and, for me, a fatal flaw with this film is that it is a comedy. It looks as if I am not the only one to struggle with this, as even Chow Yun-fat who executes everything else seamlessly is, here, simply a poor comic actor. He chews gum constantly with his mouth wide open and all the dialogue is painfully exaggerated and even slapstick. It essentially destroys the emotional bond between the character and the audience. To make matters worse, the dubbed English audio track is extremely painful. The voices appear in a semi-permanent state of excitement regardless of what is happening on the screen and translation has to be poor because the dialogue just cannot be that bad. If you feel like using the subtitles with the English dubbing then don't. They barely follow each other and at some points even appear like there are from different films. Also bizarrely there is not an original Cantonese language track here.

All in all it is not a bad heist thriller with some great action sequences, sadly the way over the top comedy and bad audio kick it in the head. Bearing in mind the whole raft of John Woo material both from Hong Kong to Hollywood, there is little to recommend. Sorry!

Extras on the disc include a feature length audio commentary by Hong Kong film expert Bey Logan. Logan also provides a tribute to Leslie Cheung who committed suicide in 2003. John Woo provides an interview, as does producer Kenneth Tsang.

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