Hong Kong Cinema

Once a Thief

  • Made: 2001
  • Format: DVD
  • Region: Region 2 PAL
  • Release Date: Jan 10, 2005
  • Company: Hong Kong Legends
  • Length: 104 mins
  • Picture: 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • Sound: Dolby 5.1
  • Language: Cantonse with English Subtitles, English Dubbed
  • Extras: Trailers, Interviews, Filmographies, Leslie Cheung Tribute
  • Classification: 15


John Woo


Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, Cherie Chung Chor-Hung, Paul Chu Kong, Kenneth Tsang Kong, Wu Feng, John Tang Yat-Kwan


Once a Thief (1991) brings together many elements that are now considered synonymous with a Hong Kong smash hit. It includes the dream team of John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, it features a lush European setting (see Wheels on Meals, Way of the Dragon, Operation Condor) and it has the stars singing the theme tune as well (Leslie Cheung)! Once a Thief proved to be a massive success over the 1991 Chinese New Year taking HK $33.4m during its 5 week run. It will surprise many that its domestic takings almost equal the combined gross of The Killer and Hard Boiled and begs the question as to why it is not held in similar reverence by Western fans.



Based loosely on Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 To Catch a Thief (Cary Grant and Grace Kelly) this movie is set on the South France Riviera. Cary Grant played a retired jewel-thief known as 'The Cat'. Once a Thief casts Chow Yun-Fat (Joe), Leslie Cheung (Jim) and Cherie Chung (Cherie) as three art thieves doing 'one more job'! They grew up together as street-orphans that go onto become a slightly stunted love triangle on a quest for revenge!

They end up having several shoot outs in art galleries and other suitable locations, but my interest in the plot matched the shallow depths of this light-hearted romp. The plot, the set and 'love interest' are merely props to hold up the blend of comedy and trademark John Woo action.



I will not labour that greatly on the comedy or acting, as there is little to criticise or commend. It does not stand out from the crowd, remaining bland and unexceptional. However, perhaps this is a clue to its runaway success. There is very little that is offensive or controversial in this movie. The bullets fly as you might expect, but gone are the puddles of blood and gore. There is no edge to the action, which is what has always appealed so greatly to Western fans (Once A Thief managed to attract a 15 certificate from the BBFC, unlike The Killer, A Better Tomorrow).


Instead, the movie-goer is asked to suspend their belief through a series of inconsequential and incoherent plot twists and turns. By the time Chow Yun-Fat jumps out of his wheel-chair at the end, most fans will be groaning in embarrassment rather than shaking with excitement. However, there is still a lot to like in this movie from an action point of view. The shoot-outs and art theft sequences are entertaining, but do not expect anything particularly innovative from the genius behind A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. There is also a very conspicuous similarity between Once a Thief and A Better Tomorrow with Chow Yun-Fat playing the crippled hero, but I can only guess this was partly tongue-in-cheek!


Hong Kong Legends provide another world class offering with this remastered release of Once a Thief. It comes fully armed with a crisp anamorphic widescreen print, dual language options, Bey Logan commentary, tribute Leslie Cheung, interview with Terence Chang and trailers.


Domestic success does not always translate into international success and this was the case for Once a Thief. Where it succeeds as a family based action-comedy, it also fails as an innovative and edgy thriller. John Woo's Western influences include everything from Die Hard to Deer Hunter, but drawing from an unremarkable Hitchcock work was never going to look like a sharp move. This formula may have appealed to the lowest common denominator in Hong Kong but was destined to fail internationally.

It is interesting to note that this movie was out-grossed over the 1991 New Year period by Jackie Chan's Operation Condor. This movie also had a European set and involved the usual cheesy comedy, but no one could ever question the commitment and energy in Jackie's action and stunts. In contrast, Once a Thief leaves the viewer and the art collector feeling empty handed!