Once A Thief Review

Released for the Chinese New Year in 1991 Once A Thief is a light hearted crime caper movie inspired by the European and American pictures of fifties cinema that John Woo grew up watching, and was a direct answer to the blow delivered by the public and critical mauling to his most personal movie to date, Bullet In The Head. Having poured his heart and soul into the bleak reality the now revered classic presents, Woo had not only seen his most important picture suffer at the box-office but had been criticised for the depressing nature of the sombre tale he had told. Looking to pick himself up and bring in some revenue for his financiers Once A Thief was born, shot, edited and released in just over ten weeks to great box-office success.

Outlining the difference in tastes between Hong Kong and Western movie goers the mishmash of comedy, adventure, romance, drama and action kept the Hong Kong audiences firmly in their seats delivering something to everyone's tastes. Elsewhere however audiences were only interested in one thing from the master of action cinema, and the lapses in the director’s trademark genre found in Once A Thief caused it to be somewhat unfairly maligned. John Woo started his career as a director applauded for his work in the comedy genre, and though Once A Thief suffers from its rushed production schedule with a script that would be suited better to one genre as opposed to the many adopted, the level of slapstick comedy on offer here combined with a wonderfully animated performance from Chow Yun-Fat make this a film I loved during the VHS era in which I developed a taste for the work of Hong Kong cinema.

But what of the plot I keep hinting at? Starting in the French capital before moving on to the scenic Riviera the story begins with the unfortunately named Red Bean (Chow Yun-Fat), Red Bean Pudding (Cherie Chung) and James (Leslie Cheung) performing their first heist of the movie. This trio of cat burglars specialise in obtaining famous works of art for the highest bidders, often their adopted father who cruelly raised the orphan children as thieves so he could become rich through their ill gotten gains. They enjoy their work in spite of their upbringing but Red Bean Pudding has decided its time to quit. The men in her life aren't quite so ready to give up however and take on one last job which ends in tragedy with Red Bean apparently dead. Returning to Hong Kong with James, Red Bean Pudding soon falls for the remaining man in her life but things become complicated when Red Bean materialises in Hong Kong, paralysed from the waist down...

...and I should stop there for fear of spoilers. There is plenty more to the plot I assure you, with another heist and further plot twists to be revealed but it’s the earlier aspects of the picture which I'd like to explore in further detail. The most interesting drama aspect of the adventure the characters and audience are taken on is the relationship the main trio share with each other and the two father figures in their lives. Before his apparent demise Red Bean (Chow Yun-Fat) and Red Bean Pudding (Cherie Chung) are lovers, but Chow's character is that of a playboy, someone who takes what he has for granted and dodges the intimate issues at hand. Leslie's character creates the love triangle by sharing a familiar affection for Cherie's character, but instead of acting upon it he sits back and merely tries to make Red Bean see what it is he has. Brought up together the two guys and a girl share a close bond which is displayed through mutual respect and love, and great care is taken to show that after Red Bean apparently dies Leslie and Cherie's characters slowly grow closer together until becoming a couple, and when Red Bean comes back into the picture he maintains the respect James once showed him. Its all handled with a light comedic touch, Red Bean in particular has a filthy mouth on him and makes some hilarious comments and metaphors along the way, but its one subtle aspect amidst all the broad comedy, slapstick humour and action scenes that stands out as vintage John Woo, depicting the love, honour and respect shared between friends.

Kenneth Tsang stars as the trio's adopted father, a man who raised the orphans through a cruel regime which included training them as thieves so they could repay him later in life. In the same flashback through which this is depicted we also meet another veteran actor, Chu Kong, best known to Woo acolytes for his role as Chow's confidant in The Killer. Here he plays a good hearted cop who meets the children as they steal some bread to feed themselves and an elderly lady they call Grandma. Taking pity on them he provides food and clothing to them, gaining a new found respect and becoming their appointed Godfather, a role which carries through to adulthood where he often finds himself caught between his duty as an officer and his duty as a father to the troublesome trio. Neither roles are particularly significant or fleshed out any further than this in the film, but it shows an interesting aspect of the central figures background and goes some way to justify their chosen occupation and the way in which they conduct their business. It also allows for some strangely amusing cruel and over the top abuse to be doled out by Kenneth Tsang, the man with a permanent scowl, and for Chu Kong to portray a rather unbelievable police presence in the movie.

In between the drama and family issues on hand the proceedings have a light touch with plenty of Cantonese style comedy which is simple enough to appreciate and short enough to never become a bore, with slapstick and physical humour taking precedence over the verbal gags ensuring all audiences can appreciate the jokes. That is assuming you have a taste for Peter Sellars brand of slapstick, with Chow taking delight in playing to the extremes with the wheelchair he is dealt in the latter half becoming part of a double-act he controls so well. The three heist sequences are a particular joy with the charismatic leads enjoying themselves almost as much as the audience, giving rise to many an Indiana Jones-esque moment as they outwit traps and security devices through sheer imagination while jumping to the task with a relaxed and confident attitude. It makes for compelling viewing which is then topped off in the early half of the movie with a stunning car chase through the south of France, involving cars, bikes and motorboats with the French stunt team vying to outdo their Hong Kong counterparts. The action in the latter half sees the film return to Hong Kong and the stunt team of Philip Kwok (who would later work on Hard Boiled and Brotherhood of the Wolf) take over. This means plenty of gunplay with the male leads literally throwing themselves into the battlefield, with the action sometimes proving a little too exuberant, even surprisingly brutal at times giving rise to light and dark tones throughout the movie as Chow and Leslie will be laughing and joking one minute and blowing some poor guys head off the next. It's not graphically violent but some of the deaths are particularly cruel and make for a strange juxtaposition of the genres at times, but if you haven't eased into the sensibilities on offer by the time the film returns to Hong Kong you will be thrust into a steady stream of action and adventure until the explosive finale nears. This comes complete with humour infused gunplay, martial arts and card throwing with all parties taking turns to get in on the action, Chow in particular revelling in the constant flow of gags and Leslie being as acrobatic as he ever was onscreen.

Of the leads Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung appear the strongest actors with their characters receiving the majority of screen time excelling in the light drama, broad comedy, charismatic caper and physical action asked of them. Cherie Chung may not get as much screen time purely due to the length of the action sequences which she is never a part of, but she works very well as the level headed beauty the male leads rely upon and shines in her extended crime caper moment on the dance room floor rising above the clumsily edited inserts with her graceful movement. Technically the occasional lapse in continuity between edits is the one minor downfall which surely rises out of the speedy shooting schedule. The cinematography is worthy of note with the beautiful French locations sparkling on the screen while interiors during the heist sequences are wonderfully atmospheric. Even the camp original music performed on synthesisers has a charm about it which adds to the element of fun present throughout the project making up for the varied shortfalls seen within the simple story.


This Hong Kong Legends DVD is coded for Region 2 only. Prior to starting the film carries a rather insignificant video introduction by director John Woo, where he literally just introduces the movie and thanks you for purchasing this special edition DVD.

Picture and Sound

Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen Once A Thief features a pleasing transfer that will satisfy all but the most hardcore of videophiles. Following Hong Kong Legends restoration work the print sourced is mostly free of dirt and grime, though on occasion vertical lines running the length of the screen were noticeable as was a minor scratch to the print which results in a lightened colours across the mark (very similar to one of the defects on The Killer DVD). Grain is present but kept to a natural level while detail levels are often very pleasing, even in shadow though I won't pretend this aspect could not be improved. The colourful French locales and that beautiful red car look fantastic with solid colour reproduction across the board. Edge enhancement was barely noticeable and there were no obvious compression artefacts to be seen.

The original Cantonese language track and optional English dub are given the 5.1 treatment which continues the HKL tradition of being respectful to the source and maintaining a front heavy soundstage. Dialogue, sound effects and music are clear and well defined, with good separation across the front and rear speakers. Fans of the original English dub will be pleased to hear this is the one used here.

Optional English subtitles are present, translating all dialogue including the lyrics from Leslie Cheung's contribution to the soundtrack at the midway point. Free of spelling and grammatical errors I cannot vouch for the quality of the translation but can say for the most part it flows very well; only stumbling on some of the comedy aspects, and from several spot checks is clearly not based upon the English dub. A separate English SDH track is also included.


Bey Logan delivers another commentary track worthy of your attention, spending proportionate amounts of time delivering movie trivia and reviewing the film covering its failings and what are to his mind, the reasons you should be enjoying yourself instead of picking holes in the plot and editing. This angle speaks well to me as I have always been a fan of the goofball humour and crime caper nature of the film, while the less flexible fans of Hong Kong cinema find it difficult to accept Chow Yun-fat or John Woo as anything but straight faced gun toting heroes. Particular attention is paid to the French and Hong Kong stunt crews and their lineage in Hong Kong and latter day American and World cinema, while any actor worthy of a short biography is paid their dues and given a place in Hong Kong cinema history for you to easily reference them by.

Returning for another ten minutes Bey Logan puts himself in front of the camera to offer a tribute to the late Leslie Cheung. Covering similar ground to that found in the commentary Bey discusses the boundaries Cheung transcended while also giving a personal message to convey his thoughts of the missed performer. Suggesting we enjoy Once A Thief by making it an example of the way Leslie lived is a message we should all take on board, as his dashing charm combined with the French Riviera is a fine way of remembering him.

Speaking from their Lion Rock Productions offices producer Terence Chang and director John Woo give two very interesting interviews discussing the film. Speaking for just over ten minutes Terence Chang has a better command of the English language and tends to give somewhat concise answers to a series of questions the audience are not privy to, but his always elegant responses do nothing to hide his passion for the medium he works in and the keen memory and working knowledge producers require. Discussing all aspects of the production and offering his personal experiences with the key actors Chang makes for fine listening and compliments the interview John Woo gives next. Running for just over half an hour John Woo speaks from the heart, explaining his reasons for making Once A Thief following the response to his tragic masterpiece Bullet In The Head. Speaking in English I often find that Woo needs to slow down the pace, as he tends to get caught up in his words and finds it hard to express himself properly. Despite this he delivers a personal message on the film and its influences, while bringing great pleasure to fans like myself who appreciate his working and personal relationships with his finest stars, so his words on Chow Yun-fat and in particular Leslie Cheung are the greatest tribute they deserve.

A trailer gallery featuring the original Hong Kong trailer and UK promotional trailer rounds up a fine extras package.


Despite playing to a broad spectrum Once A Thief has all the elements we have come to expect from a John Woo movie of this period including highly imaginative action set pieces, bonds of brotherly love and a fine cast who share a good onscreen chemistry to sell the latter aspect. Here the range of genres is sometimes off-putting but the sheer level of fun the characters in the movie are having should allow you to rise above the simple plot and occasionally clumsy editing to enjoy a fine caper picture that entertains from start to finish.

The DVD from Hong Kong Legends is particularly commendable for the interviews with John Woo and Terence Chang while the picture and sound quality are the best currently available for the film. My only disappointment with regards to the disc stems from its strengths, as following their interviews I would have loved to find a John Woo/Terence Chang commentary track of the standards present on the American DVDs for The Killer and Hard Boiled.

7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10


out of 10

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