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John Woo's Once a Thief Reviews

Very loosely based on his 1991 film of the same name, John Woo's ONCE A THIEF was produced as a pilot for a short-lived television series that was shown only in Canada. Despite its lightweight approach, this tale of two Hong Kong thieves who become crimefighters has more in common with Woo's oeuvre than any of his American features. Hong Kong gangster Mr. Tang (Michael Wong) has raised orphans Li Ann (Sandrine Holt) and Mac (Ivan Sergei) along with his own son Michael (Robert Ito) to be his heirs and high-tech operatives. But Mac wants out when he learns that Tang is also an arms dealer. He asks his lover Li Ann to join him; initially reluctant, she agrees when she realizes that the increasingly unscrupulous Michael is also in love with her. Mac is captured by the police after an attempt to rob Tang's warehouse; Li Ann escapes to North America. Eighteen months later Mac, who has been held without trial by the police (which he prefers to facing the wrath of the Tangs) is offered a job with a secret international crimefighting group operating out of Vancouver. There he is surprised to find Li Ann working for the same group. Thinking Mac dead, Li Ann became engaged to Victor (Nicholas Lea), an ex-cop who also works with her. Despite (or perhaps because of) the tensions among them, they are assigned to work as a team by "The Director" (Jennifer Dale). Their first case pits them against Michael, who is looking to establish an arms business in North America. In a climactic confrontation at Michael's warehouse, the operation is shut down and Michael dies rather than injure Li Ann, whom he has always loved. The Director decides that Mac, Victor, and Li Ann will continue to work together. On a plot level, ONCE A THIEF bears only the most superficial resemblance to Woo's 1991 film of the same name, in which three high-tech thieves seek revenge against their adopted father after he sets them up. But the two are similar in other areas. Both are comparatively light films with elements of comedy--though here, the perpetual wisecracking of Ivan Sergei is forced and wearisome. A few of the action set pieces are similar, and one, a robbery of a valuable painting from a room protected by laser beams, is a direct remake. The opening scene, set at a ballroom dance contest, recalls the opening of Woo's A BULLET IN THE HEAD (1990), though without the dangerous undercurrents; it's an example of Woo simply having fun. ONCE A THIEF also features such Woo hallmarks as freeze frames and bursts of slow motion to highlight significant character moments--apparently his Canadian producers were more lenient regarding his editing preferences than the producers of his American films. The video release is slightly longer than the one shown on the Fox network in 1996. (Violence, sexual situations, adult situations.)