Once a Thief

In 1991, while taking a breather between his action films, John Woo churned out a stylish comedy caper starring Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung as comrades in art thievery but rivals in love. Now Woo has taken the amusing premise of a bantering trio on the lam and adapted it for a syndicated TV series, Once a Thief. In this hour-and-a-half pilot, Woo uses the same elements of action, revenge, and humor that also permeate his most memorable Hong Kong work. The pilot tells the story of Michael, his adopted Eurasian sister Ann, and Mac, her non-Asian boyfriend. Groomed to take over the Triad family in Hong Kong controlled by Michael’s father, the three are separated by a betrayal, a stolen Rembrandt, and a clash of values, and Michael is pitted against the others as the action shifts to Vancouver, a haven for wealthy Hong Kongers (and the series’s permanent setting). Oddly the story focuses not on the unconventional though supposedly sophisticated central relationships but on the ambivalent passion an outsider harbors for Ann. Woo once again adroitly explores his favorite themes of honor and loyalty–tailored here to the repetitive open structure of a TV series. His trademark action and suspense sequences, superior by TV standards, are expertly edited and intense. If only his leads were more raffishly charming and less callow–though Michael Wong gives a compelling performance as Michael. Though shot in 35 millimeter, Once a Thief exists only in video format and will be screened that way. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, July 27, 8:15, 443-3737.

–Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph from “Once a Thief”.