REVIEW: Once a Thief (1991)

Three orphans grow up with two fatherly figures – a crime boss and a police officer – and are trained to be professional thieves.

By Raymond Arcega
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Once a Thief

Original Title: 纵横四海
Year: 1991
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Genres: Action, Comedy, Crime
Director: John Woo

Once a Thief is a much lighter story than John Woo’s usual dark and gritty films about heroic bloodshed, like Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow. This film combines John Woo’s usual tropes, from stylish gun fights to ridiculously cool heroes, with charming comedy.


The film follows Joe (Yun Fat-chow), James (Leslie Cheung), and Cherie (Cherie Chung) – three orphans. They are lifelong friends who have survived through many tough years. They grew up with two fatherly figures – one the harsh crime boss whom they call Dad (Kenneth Tsang), and the kind police officer whom they call Papa (Chu Kong).

Throughout the years, they have learned how to use different sorts of technology, martial arts, and pickpocket techniques, making ends meet as professional thieves. Currently living in France, they are commissioned by different crime bosses to steal all sorts of precious paintings. After a big heist, the three celebrate Cherie’s birthday, who tries to persuade the two to retire from their fast paced lives of thievery.

However, a big commission of a beautiful painting attracts the eyes of Joe and James, who sneak out behind Cherie’s back to retrieve it. After successfully stealing it, things start looking bleak when they are rained upon by gunfire.


At the core of this film’s enjoyment is the companionship between the three leads. Their dialogue and interactions together are extremely entertaining, and really give the feel that the three have known each other their whole lives. They tease each other and make each other laugh, really bringing the audience into the depths of their relationship.

That makes it extremely easy to eat up the antics that the three partake in. They execute their missions with not only the fleshed out planning that’s on par with any Ocean’s film, but with choreography involving teamwork and acrobatics. Chow and Cheung’s characters, every single time, just know what to do to steal even the most heavily guarded painting without even so much a cue from the other; they are just that in sync.


The fun part is when they bicker and fight, with dialog as entertaining as the best buddy cop films. The antics that Chow and Cheung do while “on the job” is like watching goofball clerks messing around behind the cash register. Depicting this best is an entire scene in which the pair are escaping a guarded castle by dodging infrared sensors. When the two start, it almost looks like some kind of dance video; body-rolling under infrared beams, and even doing the limbo.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a John Woo film without the bullets and blood. It would be unwise to let the comedy and fun characters distract you from remembering that this is directed by the man who loves to let the body count shoot through the roof.


So there will be infinite ammo, with bad guys equal in number. There will be sliding around, well, everything, while bullets rain on our heroes. There will be no such things as laws of physics. There will also be a scene with Leslie Cheung passing C4 to Chow Yun-fat, who will then head butt it so that it flies, and ultimately explodes, in a bad guy’s face.

What one can walk away with when watching a John Woo piece is the satisfaction of watching a great action film, with characters that go deeper than the typical action hero. We see excellent brotherly chemistry between Cheung and Chow, making us both cheer and laugh.

With very creative choreography and great characters, Once a Thief is a must-watch for all John Woo fans.

Watch this film…

…if you want to see John Woo do comedy.

About the Author

Raymond Arcega


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