Chow Yun Fat, Cherie Chung and Leslie Cheung are a trio of high-tech art thieves, who are at the top of their "profession". Chow and Cherie are involved together and plan to quite the business and get married after a big job in France. However, things go wrong and Chow is involved in a serious accident while rescuing Leslie, and is presumed to be dead. Thinking this, Cherie and Leslie end up getting together. But years later when Chow resurfaces the truth about what happened comes to light, and they realise who it is they can and cannot trust.
There was something about watching this film that struck me right from the word go. Leslie Cheung looked really young! That's possibly more of a reflection on Chow Yun Fat aging better than Leslie did, but for the first few minutes that he was on screen most of what I was thinking consisted of "damn this must be an old film" or things to that effect. Well it is about 15 or 16 years old now, which is quite frightening really. This was made in the early nineties and that is over 15 years ago now. Damn I'm getting old too...
Once A Thief is one of many films that just didn't click with me. I could see some of the merit in the praise it receives as there are many scenes that are good due to either the action or the banter between the leads. But there were also many scenes that I found relatively cringe-worthy. Generally these scenes involved the stupid, not-actually-that-funny type of comedy that is (mis)used in a lot of Hong Kong films. Must be a cultural difference thing because I've lost count of the number of Hong Kong films that I've seen which have been ruined by out of place attempts at humour. When you've got a decent amount going for a film, good cast, decent story, good action and some good dialogue, why do even highly respectable film-makers like John Woo have to ruin it by trying to be funny. More often than not it just doesn't work.
Things start reasonably well with a rather elaborate, but well executed, art theft. This introduces the viewers to the characters and tells a bit about each of their personalities. As far as film starters go, it's great. It has the viewer interested from the get-go and sets the scene for the rest of the film. When the film is progressing the story in scenes such as this one, Once A Thief fares very well. As we slowly learn about the three leads' past and their abusive father (who I assume isn't their real father as I gather the three leads were all orphans) we start to see how and why they've ended up the way they are and how they became so close and protective of each other. They are thieves, but each had their own motivation and thoughts for doing so. The best scenes by far are the actual theft scenes that occur relatively frequently. They are imaginative (if a little unbelievable at times), acrobatic and entertaining. A lot of the entertainment comes from the interaction between Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun Fat. They don't really seem to take things that seriously, showing that they are having fun while participating in their chosen profession. It would have been a better film if there had been more thefts to watch.
Not surprisingly for Chow Yun Fat - John Woo collaboration, there are quite a few gun fights to speak of, all of which are entertaining enough to watch, but all of which suffer from the same ridiculous fate - the bad guys are universally crap. Crap in the sense that you could stand two feet away from them and give them time to aim their gun while you try to load yours. They could get six shots off before you manage one, but of course they will miss with every one, then you could shoot them with your first shot. Nothing quite that ridiculous takes place in Once A Thief but it sometimes gets pretty damn close. When the bad guys outnumber the good guys by lots to two, have automatic weapons against hand guns, how can they possibly miss so often?! Yeah, it is entertainment but after a while of seeing so many people being unable to aim, I got a little bored due to it being so unrealistic.
That problem coupled with the poor attempts at humour are what brings Once A Thief down to just a little better than average film. It could have been better, just look at Hard Boiled or The Killer to see how the rather unrealistic gunfights can keep the entertainment levels high and also not actually seem that unrealistic. In addition to this, keeping with the unbelievable I also found the little twist at the end to be of similar stature. Yes, they do explain it and it is a reasonable explanation but it just seemed all too convenient and far too scripted rather than believable. There is decent entertainment here, it is just a shame you have to put up with so much that is not. On a last note, I certainly hope that the characters in the film were definitely orphans otherwise this is a very incestuous film too!
Audio & Subtitles
The audio is a bit of a mixed bag with this release. It is a DD 5.1 soundtrack which I'm guessing is a mix from a stereo/mono original. Bullets are spread around the soundstage, as her engine noises, wind and other atmospheric effects. The majority of everything else plays from front centre. I say it is a mixed bag because at times it sounds absolutely fine, but at other times it is noticeably quieter in volume levels. I'm not talking near silence, but a bit quieter than the scene it follows. It is a little off putting, but what can you do?! All other aspects of the audio seemed fine to me.
The subtitles contain frequent spelling and grammar errors. It is always easy to get the gist of what they should say, so the errors are more of an annoyance than a hindrance on understanding the film.
The film print is not as good as I would have liked either. Speckles and other dirt sort of marks appear on the print with relative frequency and there was a scene or so where there was a big black bit at the bottom of the screen. I think it must have been something on the camera because it stays there for the entire scene. Colours are decent enough looking, detail levels aren't that great but are functional and the print shows signs of a little bit of grain.
DVD & Extras
This release comes with very little in the way of extras. There's the film's synopsis, information on the careers of the stars, the film's trailer and a sort of Megastar trailer compilation. Nothing to get remotely excited about.
I know there are a lot of people out there who really like Once A Thief, but I just don't see why it is so well revered. It is decent enough, very good in places, but too much of it is unbelievable and not entertaining to make it a must-see film.