[box cover]

Once a Thief

For those used to the melodramatic violence of John Woo's action movies (be it The Killer or Face/Off), his 1991 Once a Thief may seem a bit confusing. But for those who don't mind a lighter riff on the heist-and-gunplay genre, the picture won't disappoint. The story follows Joey (Chow Yun-Fat) and James (Leslie Cheung, Happy Together), who have partnered with Cherrie (Cherie Chung) and gallivant around France stealing priceless pieces of art to pay off their mentor Chu (Kenneth Tsang) — the elder man raised them to be master thieves, but now he holds them in debt for his kindness. However, the trio also have a godfather in the kindly cop Chow (Kong Chu, best known as Sidney in The Killer) and thus find themselves conflicted. After a heist goes bad and Joey and James have to shoot their way out of it, Joey disappears and is thought dead. Months later he shows up in a wheelchair, further aggravating the unresolved tension between Joey (real name: Jules) and Jim over Cherrie. As is made obvious by the names of the characters, Once a Thief shows off the film-geek side of John Woo, a director who dedicated his Laserdisc release of The Killer to Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai) and Martin Scorsese. It's strictly a "kick the shoes off" effort, with over-the-top action staged for laughs and with a mind-boggling ending in which Chow Yun-Fat engages in a fight with a combatant who flings fatal playing cards. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong sense of humor with its slapstick roots may grate on American viewers unused to such wacky sensibilities. But this is the kind of movie that spotlights its stars, and Chow gets to show his rakish charm here in ways he's been unable to in his American efforts, while the late Leslie Cheung also gets a chance to show his reserved cool. This isn't the ultimate Woo film, but it's a fine effort. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Once a Thief presents the film in both anamorphic widescreen (2.35;1) and pan-and-scan transfers, while the Mandarin and English audio tracks are in DD 2.0 stereo (with optional subtitles). Extras include a trailer for this and other Sony pictures. Keep-case.

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