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Zong heng si hai (1990)

Once a Thief, Criss-Cross Over Four Seas

They only stop to reload.

Rating: 3/10

Running Time: 104 minutes

UK Certificate: 15


The last few action films made by John Woo in Asia before he moved to the US were conspicuously influenced by European and American cinema. 'The Killer' (1989), for example, riffed off Jean-Pierre Melville's 'Le Samouraï' (1967), while 'Bullet in the Head' (1990) put a Chinese spin on Michael Cimino's 'The Deer Hunter' (1978). It was these films, with their marriage of Eastern and Western sensibilities, as well as their baroquely balletic approach to violence in general and gunplay in particular, that made Woo's transition from Hong Kong to Hollywood seem so obvious a step. Yet Woo's Eastern and Western consituencies have rarely come together. Woo started out in Hong Kong as a director not of action but of comedy, and many of the Hong Kong films that built his reputation abroad flopped at home. After the successive Hong Kong failures of 'The Killer' and 'Bullet in the Head' (firm favourites amongst his Western fans), Woo turned to the broad comedy of 'Once A Thief', which was a runaway box-office success at home, but was barely even noticed abroad.

Under the brutal tutelage of Hong Kong crimelord Chow (Kenneth Tsang), street orphans Joe (Chow Yun-fat), Jim (Leslie Cheung) and Cherie (Cherie Chung) have grown up to be daring art thieves, despite the best efforts of kindly police officer Chu (Chu Kong) to keep them on the straight and narrow. Cherie wants to marry Joe and settle down, but Jim and Joe's 'one last job' on the French Riviera goes wrong, and Joe is apparently killed in an explosion as he saves Jim's life. Years later, a wheelchair-bound Joe returns to Hong Kong, determined both to forge a new relationship with Jim and Cherie, who are now married, and to take vengeance on Chow for using and betraying them.

Really 'Once A Thief' ought to be Woo's ultimate crossover triumph (as is suggested by its original Cantonese title, which translates approximately as 'Criss-cross over four seas'). Its first half is set in Paris and the French Mediterranean (Woo's only European location shoot to date), while its second half unfolds in Hong Kong, and it combines both action with comedy and the Western crime caper genre with a very Eastern brand of stuntwork and kung fu. Yet for all its success in Hong Kong as a typical 'Chinese New Year movie' offering something for everyone, it is a film that very few Westerners are likely to enjoy. Hong Kong humour rarely translates well, and all the banter, antics and slapstick in 'Once A Thief' that proved so appealing to Chinese viewers are hard for Anglo-American viewers to endure for very long, if at all – even if there is some compensation to be had in the bursts of hyperkinetic violence that occasionally punctuate the high jinks, and in the final shootout that blends action and physical comedy with genuine inventiveness.

Still, Western devotees of Woo have good reason to be grateful for the existence of this film, even if they may not take much actual pleasure in watching it. For without the considerable profits which 'Once A Thief' made in Hong Kong, Woo would never have been able to finance his next film, 'Hard Boiled' (1992), which is one of his all-time best. And for all its shortcomings, 'Once A Thief' is still infinitely better than its Woo-directed 1996 remake for Canadian television…

It's Got: Chow Yun-fat and (the late) Leslie Cheung getting to let their hair down and have fun; a magician who uses a deck of cards as a weapon; some neat wheelchair fighting (AND wheelchair dancing).

It Needs: Far less comedy, and at least one scene of a man strolling through a dusty church with a gun in either hand as doves fly behind him in slow motion (to placate Woo fanatics).

DVD Extras Digitally remastered and restored 16:9 anamorphic version (enhanced for widescreen TVs); scene selection; choice of original Cantonese or dubbed English audio (Dolby digital 5.1); optional English subtitles or subtitles for the hearing impaired; full audio commentary by Hong Kong expert Bey Logan, who displays his usual encyclopædic knowledge of cast and crew (right down to rumours that one background extra was rumoured to have worn the same pair of trousers continuously for ten years), and gives insights into the films original, more serious script before it was rewritten as a comedy; Bey Logan biography; Walking Through the Shadows (10min), a tribute by Bey Logan to singer/actor Leslie Cheung (A Better Tomorrow I & II, A Chinese Ghost Story, Farewell My Concubine, Happy Together), who committed suicide in 2003; Brother in Arms (11min), interview with producer Terence Chang on his long professional relationship with John Woo (and his admission that Once a Thief is "uneven"); Up Close and Personal (34min), an interview with writer/director John Woo on his disappointment after the failure of Bullet in the Head, his subsequent decision to make Once a Thief as a "fast food movie" and a tribute to the French new wave, his admiration for Chow Yun-Fat, and his sadness at the death of Leslie Cheung; trailers (UK and original); promo reels for other Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia titles. DVD Extras Rating: 8/10


John Woo completists may cherish the release of another of his Hong Kong films, but this substandard wheelchair-bound comedy caper fails to stand on its own two feet.