John Woo's Once A Thief (TV)

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Our rating: three lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

Perhaps destined to be the lost John Woo film, Once A Thief is a TV movie Woo directed for the Fox Network between working on Broken Arrow and Face/Off. As a TV movie, it doesn't have the polished production values and special effects of even Woo's Hong Kong films, but it's a lot more engaging than ABC's last attempt at humorous secret agents, Spy Game. While the plot sometimes sags, there are enough clever lines, action scenes, and good performances to keep us interested.

Sandrine Holt as Li Ann.
Let's just get this out of the way: Once A Thief is not a direct remake of the Hong Kong film of the same name, though the two do share elements. Both movies have a ballroom dancing scene. Both movies feature a love triangle among thieves, though in the TV version it's really more of a love quadrangle. The TV version has a similar but different relationship between the main characters and a HK mob boss. And both movies require the heroes to use identical methods to steal a painting guarded by unlikely security measures (In the TV version, Mac is confident that his hanging-off-the-chandelier trick will work because he "saw it in a movie.").

As the movie starts, we are introduced to three flamboyant thieves living in Hong Kong named Mac (Ivan Sergei), Li Ann (Sandrine Holt), and Michael (Michael Wong, who was in Legacy of Rage). Mac and Li Ann were adopted by the Old Man, the head of the Tang crime family, while Michael is his son by blood. Mac and Li Ann are in love, but Li Ann is betrothed to Michael at the wishes of the Old Man. Li Ann and Mac decide to get out of the family, and to do so they decide to steal some of the family's money from a vault in a family owned factory. The plan goes bad during its execution, and while Li Ann escapes, Mac is left trapped inside the vault. Luckily for him, he is found by the police and not the Tang family.

Jump ahead a couple of years. Mac is still in prison. He is given a choice by a representative of a shadowy crime fighting bureau. Either he comes work for them, or they let him loose on the streets of Hong Kong where his life expectancy will be very short. He chooses to go with the Bureau.

The Bureau is headquarters in Vancouver, Canada which is lucky, because that's where the Fox Network likes to film dramas. Mac is at first happy to find out that Li Ann is in the same organization he is, but less happy when he finds out Li Ann now has a fiancee, Victor (Nicholas Lea, Krycek on the X-Files). The three of them are made a team, and their objective is to stop the Tang family's attempts, spearheaded by Michael, to gain a foothold in Vancouver.

This movie is indeed directed by John Woo, and the action scenes are notches above your average TV movie. Unlike just about anything else Woo has done, though, all of the action scenes are completely bloodless, with the bad guys either keeling over like the guys wearing black hats in old westerns or being thrown through the air by any one of the many explosions Once A Thief serves up.

A happy family of thieves.
Actually something must be said about the sheer number of explosions in Once A Thief. Now, this is not to say that John Woo didn't have explosions in his older movies. In The Killer fuel canisters show up in the damnedest places, in Bullet in the Head Luke loves to use those little sticks of dynamite, and in Hard Boiled an entire hospital blows up. But Once A Thief crosses some sort of line in an early scene where the mob boss demonstrates the explosive properties of powdered flour by having one of his underlings throw a match into a shack full of flour. A big bang ensues, blowing up the shack, which is attached to a flour mill, which is where the boss is keeping his huge stash of illegal weapons. Quoth Mac, "I guess the barbecue's out." Isn't the boss worried that going around and purposely blowing up buildings just to make a point might bring unwanted attention from the authorities?

The real story, and the one that would presumably continue in the TV series this movie is a pilot for, is the romantic conflict between Mac and Victor for Li Ann's affection. Unfortunately, Mac seems to have a serious leg up. He's certainly more charismatic and funny. And the actor who plays him is not known as 'Ratboy' to everyone on the Usenet X-Files forums. This triangle may work a little better in Canada, where actor Lea is apparently known for something other than playing the traitorous one-armed nemesis of Mulder.

Sandrine Holt is stunning as Li Ann. She's a good dancer, and more importantly she is able to live up to her character's penchant for being a bad-ass. Granted, this means that sometimes her acting is reduced to just staring at the camera with a look on her face as if to say, "I wonder how long it would take you to die if I shot you in the stomach," but we really don't mind it at all, just so long as the camera lingers on her. Really.

On a final note, it turns out this movie may not be as lost we initially thought. It was recently released on tape, which is more that you can say for the version of Don't Drink the Water that Woody Allen directed for TV. And apparently the TV series is a go, at least on Canadian TV.

Rent or Buy from Reel.
Click here for the review of Once A Thief - Hong Kong version.

Review date: 8/12/97

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