This French art gallery has suffered a robbery recently, and the director of the museum is not cheered up by a Chinese tourist sitting down next to him and offering a stick of chewing gum. Little does he know this tourist is actually a thief, known as Red Bean Pudding (Chow Yun-Fat), and he is part of a three person team of international art criminals, a trio of childhood friends - the others being Red Bean Sis (Cherie Chung) and James (Leslie Cheung) - who plan to liberate another priceless work of art...
Once a Thief was director John Woo's try at something that bit lighter than what he had been making recently, a more obvious aim at a commercial hit that took in a spot of globetrotting as well, or at least a visit to France where he could make his tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. But although there was a superficially classy air to his movie, there was a heavy dose of crude humour into the bargain: Hitch would not have included a scene where Cary Grant stopped his getaway car to have a piss by the roadside, for example. Nevertheless, such humour was par for the course in your average Hong Kong comedy.
Even when it wasn't set in Hong Kong, not for the first half of the film at any rate, as our roguish threesome prove themselves as adept with their Riviera thefts as they do with their blithe cheerfulness in the other aspects of their lives. This is naturally a love triangle, but though they trade jokey insults it's one of the defining characteristics of the story that their true bond of companionship is rarely in doubt. We see that they grew up on the streets of Hong Kong as a gang of child criminals assembled and coached by their guardian (Kenneth Tsang), though their more suitable parent is actually a kindly cop, who they name their Godfather (Kong Tsu).
They are still in touch with both of them, but their "Dad" is less admirable than they thought (even less than that!), as they find out when their latest scheme goes awry. All they had to do was steal another priceless painting, surely something they could do in their sleep by this stage, but in true heist movie fashion there's a factor they had not counted on. So while they do actually snag the artwork, problems arise when security get wind of what they're up to and a gun battle ensues - did someone tip them off? Before this had not been typical John Woo territory as his Western fans knew it, but once this sequence occurs they should feel in safer hands.
Not that the comedy isn't funny, as it does feature some decent laughs, and there is the type of depth that the director liked to include, themes of loyalty for instance, but a sense of this being fairly lightweight stuff is never far away. That's even when Red Bean Pudding pulls off a stunt after he and James are chased towards a marina and he foolhardily zooms off the pier to crash into a speedboat to save James from a hail of bullets, so judging by that massive explosion resulting you'd be surprised if he survived. Well, he does, but not without cost, spending the rest of the film in a wheelchair in a move towards pathos which does derail the previous silliness, though Woo did recover for the finale which was more of a fairy tale ending than anything convincing. Although you do get an assassin (Declan Wong) who uses magic tricks as his arsenal, so that's something not often seen. Overall, Once a Thief was amusing enough, but not top tier Woo. Music by Violet Lam.
One of the most influential directors working in the modern action genre. Hong Kong-born Woo (real name Yusen Wu) spent a decade making production-line martial arts movies for the Shaw Brothers before his melodramatic action thriller A Better Tomorrow (1987) introduced a new style of hyper-realistic, often balletic gun violence.
It also marked Woo's first collaboration with leading man Chow-Yun Fat, who went on to appear in a further three tremendous cop/gangster thrillers for Woo - A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and Hard Boiled. The success of these films in Hong Kong inspired dozens of similar films, many pretty good, but few with Woo's artistry or emphasis on characters as well as blazing action.
In 1993, Woo moved over to Hollywood, with predictably disappointing results. Face/Off was fun, but the likes of Broken Arrow, Windtalkers and Mission: Impossible 2 too often come across as well-directed, but nevertheless generic, studio product. Needs to work with Chow-Yun Fat again, although his return to Hong Kong with Red Cliff proved there was life in the old dog yet.
One thing you did not mention is this was intended as a fond farewell to the screen partnership of Chow Yun Fat and Cherie Chung. They made a dozen or so movies together and were so popular among Asian audiences many expected them to marry in real life. In fact Cherie was set to marry and retire from movies, which is why Chow symbolically hands her over to domestic contentment.
To be honest, I love this movie. The schizophrenic tone and zany humour are symptomatic of Chinese New Year movies, of which this is a prime example and aimed at family audiences looking for something frothy and fun. But I think John Woo infuses this with great style and charm including numerous nods to his favourite French films. And Chow plays his part like an overgrown kid, which is oddly lovable.
Bizarrely, when John Woo remade this film for American television (as a pilot for a TV series that never came to be) he turned the Chow Yun Fat character, now played by Michael Wong, into the villain of the piece! Nicholas Lea, a.k.a. Agent Krycek in The X-Files, played the all-American hero who guns down dastardly Chinese baddies but romances a Chinese love interest. Ho-hum, another Chinese hero rewritten to appease the mainstream.
10 Oct 2011
I didn't mind the crunching gear changes, they're par for the course, it simply didn't make me laugh quite as much as I'd hoped. Perfectly entertaining movie, though.