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Review Once a Thief a.k.a. Zong heng si hai (1991): A John Woo light filled with comedy antics!

genre: action, comedy, crime, heroic bloodshed, gun fu, heist

John Woo ventures into comedy and it will require you to get used to it. I am aware that Chow Yun-Fat is a diverse actor and that he has done comedy before. But for me this was the first title where I have seen him act goofy. (The second one was in Tiger on the Beat.) He gets away with it because of his charisma and charm that oozes from him even if he looks completely ridiculous. However these comedy bits do get in the way of the serious sides of the story.

Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-Fat have good chemistry and they make the viewing experience a lot of fun. Cheung is the more serious of the two and both have a romantic interest in Cheri (Cherie Chung) although Chow Yun-Fat is not the type to be tied down as he wants to enjoy his freedom as much as possible. You are not given time to think about these three partners in crime. But if you do something is off. They know each other since their childhoods. They are orphaned and live in the streets of Hong Kong where they steal to get by. Then they are taken in by one of the most despicable human beings on this planet played by Kenneth Tsang who they have to call Father. He merely uses them for his criminal activities. When of if they defy him he punishes them. But the three support each other no matter what and they act more like they are siblings. That is why I think it is strange that John Woo has put this romantic element in their relationship. Just doesn't seem right. And if he would have done more with it like adding some dramatic tension between them it would have made more sense. However John Woo is not really concerned with these serious issues.

Compared to earlier John Woo films Once a Thief is not as action packed as you expect it to be. But the few action scenes that are present are classic John Woo especially in the finale although even there he can't restraint himself from adding comedy and it affects the tone considerably. I won't deny that I laughed at the silliness but that doesn't mean I appreciate it. This John Woo film is the only one I have watched once or twice before and watching it again after so many years had made me realize that I like the TV Show that was remade a whole lot better.

Even if you just watch this as a heist / caper flick the comedy ruins the tension, thrills and excitement. Although John Woo does have some pleasant surprises for you in store so at least he redeems himself somewhat. Let's be clear that Once a Thief is not a bad film. But it is one you have to be in the mood for. Especially regarding the comedy since at times it is just borderline offensive.

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