Once a Thief is a strange little crowd-pleaser from Hong Kong. For John Woo's many US fans, it may come as a surprise that Woo made Once a Thief between the bullet-ridden Bullet in the Head and the even more bullet-ridden Hard Boiled. But Woo has a history of making comedies, and Once a Thief is the last one he made in Hong Kong.
The chandelier trick.
In usual HK fashion, the characters of Once a Thief seem to be trapped in a complex web of melodramatic relationships. The main characters are Joe (Chow Yun Fat), Jim (Leslie Cheung), and Cherie (Cherie Chung), a trio of flamboyant art thieves operating out of Paris. How flamboyant? Well, they steal a painting that is being transported from the Louvre to another museum via truck by using an elaborate plan that involves perfume, a convertible, a motorcycle, Joe breaking into the back of the moving truck, Jim hanging on to the underneath of the truck and sawing through the floor, and parasailing. In any case, Joe, Jim and Cherie were adopted at an early age by a cruel HK crime lord Chow (the actor who played Danny Lee's partner in The Killer) who raised them as his own children. Assuming that he didn't like for own children very much. But he taught them to steal and the three of them call him 'Dad.' Also during their childhood they were befriended by a beat cop who they now call 'Papa.' Papa (the actor who played Chow Yun Fat's partner in The Killer) has a knack for showing up at the most inopportune moments in the story.
OK, that's the background. The plot really kicks in when Jim and Joe steal a cursed painting from a weird castle at the behest of French collector. The collector betrays them for no particular reason and has his henchmen try to kill them. A huge car chase/shoot-out ensues, and doesn't end until Joe jumps his car off a pier head on into a speedboat carrying bad guys. Big boom follows.
With Joe thought dead, Jim and Cherie retire to Hong Kong and get married. Two years later, Joe shows up, confined to a wheel chair. It seems the cursed painting is now owned by Chow, so Joe and Jim decide to steal it from him to teach him a lesson.
Even though Once a Thief features a good dollop of gun-fueled mayhem, this really is a comedy. Most of the heist scenes are pretty ridiculous, and there are lots of scenes where the three amigos doing cute things together, like eating at sidewalk cafes and celebrating birthdays. And if you don't think somebody is going to end up being pushed into the pool of their French villa, you really need to see more movies.
Other times, the humor borders on Looney Toons. In one inexplicable scene, Joe sets a charge to blow up a bank vault door. It seems he 'wires it wrong', though, and a section of wall blows up, where no explosives were placed. At another point in the film, Joe and Jim square off against Dad's henchmen. Jim sets a booby trap by putting a couple cans of Coke in a microwave, turning it on, and putting a basketball in front of it. The microwave explodes, propelling the now flaming(!) basketball into a bad guy, pushing him out a window. We won't be surprised if this gag shows up in Home Alone 3.
And the movie is very topical! At one point, Joe is fighting a man who throws playing cards with deadly results. Joe catches the cards, coming up with specific hands, like black jack. After one throw, Joe comes up with all aces and declares, "So many Ace! You must have AIDS!"
Chow Yun Fat is in full gear in this movie, doing anything he needs to elicit the emotion that the scene requires. He chortles, pulls comedic wheelies in his wheel chair, sings, and of course shows off his trademark shit-eating grin as often as possible. Overall, Chow seems to be trying to emulate Cary Grant in It Takes a Thief, down to his hairstyle. Chow is a consummate actor, and always fun to watch.
Pity poor Leslie Cheung. He really doesn't get it. Jim should probably be the main character, the one that we relate to, but Leslie doesn't give us anything to remember. It's not to say Leslie is a bad actor, or that he gives a bad performance, but the key to acting in John Woo movies is to overact, or else you will get steamrolled by all the stylish camera work. And this situation is exacerbated by the fact that Chow Yun Fat gives one of his most over-the-top performances. Leslie may as well being playing the painting for all the screen presence he has. It's like what would happen if Cary Grant and Bruce Cabot were to star in a movie together (Hint: There's a reason you don't know who Bruce Cabot was).
But special pity should be reserved for Cherie Chung, who is given a totally thankless role to perform. Like most of the women in John Woo films, she is totally left out when most of the interesting stuff happens. Not once, but twice, is Cherie told by Jim and Joe to go wait at an airport while the men go get into a fight that moves the plot forward. This kind of thing makes sure that she leaves little impression on the viewer. The only exception is a really great ballroom dancing sequence, where she pickpockets a gallery owner while she dances.
The bottom line is that this is a piece of light entertainment. If you want the usual deep, dark world of John Woo, it isn't here. But if you want to see Chow Yun Fat ham it up, some cool shoot outs, some really goofy humor and one neat car chase, Once a Thief may be worth seeking out.