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縱橫四海 (1991)
Once a Thief

Reviewed by: Hyomil
Date: 04/07/2011

Reviewer Score: 4

Reviewed by: Brian Thibodeau
Date: 03/04/2010

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 02/19/2007
Summary: mmm, sweet bean paste...

red bean pudding (chow yun-fat), james (leslie cheung) and red bean (cherie chung) are three orphans (?), who have been raised by their adopted dad, chow (kenneth tsang), and godfather, chu (paul chu); chow is an art collecting gangster, whilst chu is a cop. the three grow up to be art thieves, stealing paintings for, amonst others, chow.

after a heist in france goes wrong, the three return to hong kong, only to find themselves involved in their biggest ever job but, increasingly, on the wrong side of chow...

after 'bullet in the head' was universally panned by hong kong audiences and critics, jon woo decided that he'd change tact and direct a happy action-comedy. with a cast in place, but no script to speak of, woo et al travelled to france and began shooting 'once a thief'. paying homage to truffant's 'jules et jim' and hitchcock's 'to catch a thief', filming began. after a few weekes in france, the production moved back to hong kong: only ten weeks from the start of filming, the film was on screen for the new year festivities in hong kong.

so, what's it like? well, it's a bit of a mess really. the humour, on the whole, falls flat and the narrative isn't particularly engaging. what helps, though, are three pretty solid action sequences which, despite a little goofiness, are executed with the kind of flair that we expect from woo.

regardless of its faults, the film was a huge success and resulted in woo being able to get funding for 'hard boiled'. every cloud...

recommended to woo completists only.

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 07/20/2006
Summary: Slips down a treat...

John Woo has a stab at the ever-popular comedy heist genre. Three childhood friends (Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Chung and the late Leslie Cheung) travel the world stealing valuable paintings – mainly for the fun of it. They meet their match in France when a double crossed Frenchman takes the hump, and the two surviving friends return to Hong Kong.

ONCE A THIEF plays a lot like the old classic British comedy crime capers, and having been brought up on this kind of thing I was right at home with it. Instead of the loveable cockney rascals though, you have Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Chung and Leslie Cheung, and they make a reasonably good team. A lot has been made about the Chow Yun-Fat character’s relationship with Leslie Cheung’s – I think it was Bey Logan who once said that at times he didn’t know whether Chow Yun-Fat was supposed to be in love with Cherie Chung or Leslie Cheung – but I don’t see the supposed homoerotica myself.

This is a largely enjoyable film as long as you’re not expecting the kind of Heroic Bloodshed type of experience you get with A BETTER TOMORROW or HARD BOILED. History has kind of forgotten that John Woo was once touted as the “new king of comedy” and this is a comedy first and foremost. There IS some action, however, and it’s not at all bad. We get to see Chow Yun-Fat kicking ass (ahem…) in a kind of old-school style that harks back to the seventies (but with significant undercranking, naturally) and a few good gun scenes. One of the crazes indulged in Hong Kong cinema during the nineties was to have an assassin or hero able to kill by throwing playing cards, and unfortunately one turns up here. I don’t know what it is; I can believe a man can fly across bamboo forests, I can believe a man can fight for twenty minutes with an axe sticking out of his stomach and I can * just * believe that one day Jackie Chan will make a film where his romantic interest is approximately his own age, but show me a scene where a bloke throws deadly playing cards and I just switch off mentally.

So, back to the film itself. Is it all plausible? Hell, no! ONCE A THIEF bears all the hallmarks of a typical Hong Kong rush-job. Believability is just an irritating inconvenience for many films in the comedy heist genre, but ONCE A THIEF does occasionally take things too far out. The whole wheelchair plot direction: I’ve watched this film about eight times now and I STILL don’t know what it’s all about. Although I remember thinking to myself on first viewing the scene where Chow meets Cheung outside the supermarket: “if he’s in a wheelchair, how did he get down those stairs?” It’s either genius or coincidence that this is explained later in the film, and my money’s on the latter!

So if you’re after a carefully scripted masterpiece of criminal shenanigans you are going to be one disappointed puppy. If, however, you want to turn off your mind and watch a reasonably entertaining film with a few ingenious gags thrown in, you may be on to a winner, guv.

Warning: The viewer should not attempt to view this film without first consuming significant amounts of alcohol.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 12/30/2005

Caper movies are an honorable niche that is full of conventions and which filmmakers ignore at their peril. They can be ridiculous and funny--“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”-- classic and funny—“How to Steal a Million”—or melodramatic and shocking—“Pickup on South Street”—or any combination. In some the audience knows what is happening and shares the viewpoint of one of the criminals undertaking the heist, such as in “Topkapi”; in others, like “The Spanish Prisoner” the audience is fooled along with the protagonist and is experiences the same surprises and double dealing that he does. But whatever the trappings, caper movies, heist movies and conman movies all share one important trait—the theft of a well guarded and very valuable object or the tricking of a very tough and resourceful opponent is at the center of the story.

Love triangle movies have their own rules but they tend to be much less restrictive—and they include some of the iconic films of all time, including “Casablanca”, “Jules and Jim” and “Gone with the Wind”. Combining the two is difficult but has resulted in some terrific movies, such as “Bob le flambeur” or “Out of the Past”.

As a caper movie, “Once a Thief” fails the most important test—the theft of the valuable object, in this case an absolutely hideous modern painting, is so simple that the thieves are able to go about the robbery with almost no planning. This deprives the movie of the tension and balance that characterizes the best work of this genre. In the first theft Chow Yun Fat and Leslie Cheung simply show up at the chateau where the painting is located, disarm some of the guards (including accidentally knocking out one of them with a grappling hook) scale the walls, find the painting, avoid the pressure pads by swinging from a chandelier and leave, although they are faced with the ubiquitous laser beam security system—which never works in the movies, of course. Essentially they are able to make up everything as they go along—while there are some ingenious touches, such as using a glass of red wine as a prism to locate the otherwise invisible laser beams, Chow and Cheung are having much too good a time to be taken seriously as crooks. The sequence continues with a John Woo convention, a shootout between the ambushed and outgunned heroes and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of bad guys and ends with a decent car/motorcycle chase punctuated by a the fiery collision between a car and a speedboat.

The second heist of the same dreadful painting includes a bit of planning by the now partially immobilized Chow but when an unanticipated change in the security system brings platoons of art gallery guards and hired thugs after them they deal with it by blowing them up with unused plastic explosive. In other words there is none of the creativity, attention to detail and thrilling anxiety that are part of the best caper movies. Whenever a problem comes up they shoot it, blow it up, electrocute it or throw it out of a window.

There is still a good bit to like about “Once a Thief”. Chow Yun Fat is at his most glamorously insouciant, never breaking a sweat even while tossing gelignite at the bad guys and looking positively dapper in black tie even though he is in a wheelchair. Leslie Cheung seems to be at his most attractive here—he was, quite simply, an extremely alluring young actor who exceeded the typical standards of male beauty and who the camera loved. Cherie Chung isn’t given much to do other than look bemused and pensive while waiting for the guys to show up, once at the airport and once at the docks. Her character is a third wheel, tossed into the mix with no real purpose and not even important enough for the boys to fight over.

There are several very well executed and exciting set pieces—the first is the theft of a modern master from a sealed and guarded truck. Leslie Cheung’s character dumps a motorcycle under the truck, hangs onto the undercarriage while cutting a hole in the floor of the trailer, takes the rolled up painting, slices the brake line of the truck then drops to the pavement. Meanwhile Chow Yun Fat leaps to the back of the truck from the hood of a speeding car, finds the crate with the painting and passes it to Cheung. Later there is a dry run at an auction at the gallery where the painting is being housed in which Cheung is able to gain access to the secured areas because Chow is so effective at creating a diversion. This set piece shows the meticulous planning and split second execution that most caper movies demand, but it is the only time it happens, although it shows what Woo could have done if he had wanted to. There is an exciting and inventive car chase, with cars careening down the long steps outside a government building, a car slamming through a travel trailer and the bit with Chow’s car going airborne to smash a boat full of gunmen.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent and well written, especially Kenneth Tsang as Mr. Chow, a Fagan-like figure who adopted the three when the were young orphans and taught them to be thieves. He is contrasted with Paul Cho Kong’s character, Mr. Chu who is a police officer and the godfather of the three. The two of them run parallel courses, tied together by their continuing interest in the thieves. Mr. Chow needs them to steal (actually to keep stealing) the painting, Mr. Chu wants them to stay out of trouble and also wants to break Chow and arrest him. Pierre Yves Burton is appropriately oily as a French art connoisseur who initially wants the painting stolen but who comes to a fitting end. Declan Michael Wong plays a character who has to be seen to be believed—and then is hard to believe. He is one of Mr. Chow’s thugs but instead of using a gun, knife or hand grenade he has a deck of playing cards that he throws, slicing and dicing his opponents. Since his targets are always Chow or Cheung he always misses but does chop down a few potted cactus plants.

One delightful shot takes place during the final battle between Chow and Cheung on one side and Mr. Chow and his innumerable thugs on the other. Chow has cornered on of the thugs and is poking at him with a pole. The camera is undercranked so that the scene when shown at 24 frames per second is speeded up although it still looked pretty smooth. The thug ducks and dodges Chow’s thrusts, finally moving his head from side to side more and more rapidly, all while a short except from “Carmen” is playing—it could have been the live action version of a Warner Brothers cartoon, with Bugs Bunny tormenting Elmer Fudd to the strains of some (then) recognizable classical theme.

Reviewer Score: 5

Reviewed by: Libretio
Date: 10/21/2005
Summary: Fine combination of action-comedy and French New Wave aesthetics


Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Sound format: Mono

Three professional thieves (Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung and Cherie Chung) steal a valuable painting coveted by their villainous mentor (Kenneth Tsang), leading to violent retribution.

John Woo redeemed the commercial failure of his masterpiece BULLET IN THE HEAD (1990) with this breezy comedy-caper, designed to restore his directorial fortunes at home and abroad. Originally conceived as a dark-hearted tragedy, Woo and co-screenwriter Clifton Ko (FOREVER YOURS) re-tooled the project for a Chinese New Year release, allowing the director to indulge his fondness for French New Wave cinema by setting much of the narrative within continental Europe, toplined by some of HK's biggest - and most iconic - movie stars. Chow overplays his role as an experienced jewel thief who alienates his loved ones by refusing to take life seriously, while Cheung and Chung are sympathetic and beautiful as his trusted sidekicks (the scene in which they dance the tango at a swank party is one of the highlights of their respective careers). Typically of Woo, the action scenes are fluid, dynamic and endlessly inventive, photographed with glossy precision by world-class cinematographer Poon Hang-sang (SHANGHAI GRAND). Planned and executed within a three month period (!), the movie overcomes its rough edges and jarring comic interludes (get a load of that final scene!) to emerge as an irresistible blend of big stars, fancy glamour and creative set-pieces. Woo returned to the story in 1996 for a Canadian TV movie (using the same title) which was dismissed by fans and general audiences alike, and quickly disappeared. Stick with the original.

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/18/2003
Summary: Good action/comedy

The plot is a fairly simple one -- a trio of thieves' friendship is put to the test after one of them is hurt badly during a job. Of course, this being a John Woo movie, there's a bit more to it than that. Chow and Cherie Chung are a couple, but Leslie Cheung also likes Cherie, and so moves in on her after the botched job. There's maybe a bit too much time devoted to scenes dealing with this stuff, but overall this is a pretty good movie.

It's more light-hearted than a lot of Woo's modern works, so if you're expecting The Killer or Hard-Boiled, you might be disappointed. But it does move along at a pretty good clip, and the chemistry between Chow and Cheung (which was touched on in A Better Tomorrow 2) is great -- plus the final shootout (which has Chow doing his best Bruce Lee imitation, complete with backflips) is exciting. It might be too comedic or over-the-top for many people (in many ways, this feels more like a Wong Jing movie than a John Woo production), but Once a Thief is definitely worth a look for action/comedy fans.

Reviewed by: balstino
Date: 06/04/2003
Summary: Some great action, but a failed product.

The comedy in this film just isn't that funny, if funny at all! Only the very last scene with Chow Yun Fat. The chemistry between the actors is OK but overall it is all a bit wishy-washy. I just can't recommend this one, even though 2 of the action scenes are excellent, complete with cracking music. Oh well, there is at least 20 minutes of classic Woo here if you are desperate!

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 03/05/2003
Summary: A mix of comedy and action which do not blend together

I agree with most of Mr Booth and STSH have said. These happy thieves Are happy to take down good and bad guys it looks like.

This movie to me has a old feel to it (well it is 12 years old, i know!!) and this had put me off the film. The action is run of the mill and the comedy comes in spirts but this movie should of either been all action or more comedy so a certain mood/atmosphere could be established. The mix the have don't go well together.

All the performance were good but i think Chow Yun Fat is over acting, he seems to be over smiling!!

Not a classic but not the worst either.


Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 12/06/2001
Summary: Unbalanced

ONCE A THIEF (1991) - Highly regarded Woo comedy actioner starring Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung and Cherie Cheung as a trio of super-thiefs who are in Paris to steal paintings. Disappointing for me though - it seemed like a mess of a movie. The comedy is strange, often surreal, and doesn't seem integrated with the movie - it was jarring. The plot is reasonably shambolic too. The movie features a number of action scenes, which are reasonably superlative and OTT in a woo style (the ending is very ABT2), but these two are very jarring in a movie that's meant to be a comedy... the boys massacre hundreds of people, including a bunch of cops (err, I think, memory haze), all quite violently... but cheerfully this time. All meant to be ha ha, fun romps, but it's hard to ignore the fact they just mercilessly killed a whole bunch of people. Oh well, it's not a meritless film anyway.

Reviewer Score: 4

Reviewed by: dragyn
Date: 03/31/2001
Summary: Surreal Tragedy/Comedy

"Once A Thief" is a strange, but not unpleasant movie. It is a surreal comedy, with tragic elements thrown in for good measure; it is easy to imagine that director John Woo was unable to make the movie as a straight comedy, and had to add a bit of his trademark tragedy.

Lead actor Chow Yun-Fat is wonderful, and lends his usual solidarity and weight as an actor to the film, along with an undeniable talent for comedy. Leslie Cheung, cast as Chow's "brother" and rival in love, is however more of a let down. He seems to possess insufficient presence to keep the viewer's attention when Chow is not on-screen. His character has none of the charm of Chow's, either. Cherie Cheung as the love interest/"sister" is also a problem; she pouts, whinges and snivels so much that she looks as though she'd be more at home in a Jackie Chan movie. John Woo is as ever an absolutely awesome director, and adds an air of stylish, artistic, quality to the whole film.

Although very enjoyable and funny, the movie is somewhat "patchy" - Woo leaps from tragedies of earth-shattering proportions to silly, surreal, often slapstick comedy wihtout really informing the audience whether they should be laughing or crying. Because of this, the watcher can take neither the comedy or the tragedy seriously. Without the comedy, a successful tragedy film could have been made; and without the tragedy, a successful comedy film could have been made. Used side by side, neither elements work fully.

It is interesting to note that John Woo made "Once A Thief" straight after making "Bullet in the Head", a gruelling movie which almost drove him to a breakdown. He chose to make a more light-hearted film to restore his peace of mind.

"Once A Thief" is great fun, and has the makings of a masterpiece; I rate it 7/10.

Reviewed by: STSH
Date: 01/04/2000
Summary: Requires patience, but worth it

Takes a VERY long time to warm up (the first 40 minutes could be nicely compressed into a short montage), but good to great when it does.

Continuing from the plot descrip >
Until this point, there has only been a couple of action sequences (one mild, one pretty good), and the non-action stuff is far from riveting I would go so far as to question why director Woo included so much of this early part. But it's from this two-years- later point that the pace (and the interest) really hots up. Woo gets in much of what he's best known for - outstandingly choreographed shoot-em-ups. The quality of the film just keeps getting better the longer it goes on for, right up to the climactic battle, which is very long, utterly riveting, and extremely funny to boot. Unlike another reviewer, I found the twist at the end surprising and a delightful way to end.

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/21/1999

John Woo's most bloodless action movie but exciting none the less. Some funny comedy for a change, and amazing gunplay.... this has been made into a television show to premiere on FOX in the Fall.


[Reviewed by Andrej Blazeka]

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

Chow (Chow Yun Fat), Leslie (Leslie Cheung) and Cherie (CherieChung) are a group of thieves.. Chow decides to end his career and marry Cherie after their final big job n France. During their mission, Chow gets into a road accident while rescuing Leslie. Believing that Chow is dead, Leslie and Cherie get married. Cherie gets pregnant. Leslie wants to break away from the local Triad. Meanwhile, Cherie learns that Chow is still alive. With John Woo directing this bizarre love story, there are sure to be many original action scenes in store.

[Reviewed by Rim Films Catalog]

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

A masterpiece of mood change and story telling. The humor has never been better and such a film never funner. The visuals are particularly good making this Woo's most elegant looking movie. One of Woo's best. Described best by David J. Schow "a Pink Panther film as directed by Sam Peckinpah."

[Reviewed by John Robert Dodd]

Reviewed by: spinali
Date: 12/08/1999
Summary: NULL

Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung, and Cherie Cheung are a trio of high-tech art thieves who do well for themselves until they're double-crossed, first by a client, then by their adoptive father. In an ensuing chase, Chow Yun-Fat is crippled; still, they plan a final caper that could make or break them. A mixed bag -- sunny Mediterranean locales, ingenious robberies, and nail-biting gun-battles alternate with the usual John Woo melodrama and one too many sophomoric jokes. The surprise 'twist' was easy to spot.


[Reviewed by Steve Spinali]

Reviewer Score: 6