Though he has rarely received mention here on my blog, I adore John Woo. I should be clear though, I adore the John Woo that existed prior to Broken Arrow, which has proven to be the demise of his career. In terms of Hong Kong Action Cinema, nay all of action cinema, Woo is the premier player in what it means to make an exceptional film. Having been fortunate to encounter Woo's Hardboiled rather early on in my endeavor to be a cinephile, his style and cinematic structure has always been an ideal point and though it is clearly not one loved universally, like de Palma or Pasollini it is almost immediately recognizable, for its washed out and soft lit nature. It is tough to differentiate some of the works from his most productive years, say 1986-1991, because they almost all deal with a disillusioned cop coming to rediscover their passion and identity by way of challenges from an equally positioned criminal. The process as scholars have noted is not the simple homosocial bond at work when the cop and criminal confront, but one more deeply invested in fraternal confrontation. As such family and other factors are always at the forefront of Woo's work, either directly evoked or ever so subtly implied. In something like Once A Thief it manages to do both magnificently, looking both at the relations of a trio of street orphans turned art thieves, while also suggesting that their relationships, though unique, can be switched, manipulated and extended outward when necessary. Furthermore, because it is an action film, Woo always seems to evoke a certain degree of celebration in the perfected male body, one that clearly borrows from kung fu films of decades earlier, yet in a knowing way the narrative subverts even these ideals and shows that degrees of ability and perfection are not quite as intertwined as imagined. I would never leap to the suggestion that Once A Thief is a masterwork of John Woo's career highpoint, but considering how exceptional his output was during this era, to call this lesser is to still place it miles above its contemporaries and certainly shades and entire colors different from his post United States work. Also, though he is always keen on the use of music in his films, the particular soundtrack for the film by Violet Lam is incredibly fitting, flittering between shades of Hong Kong bar jazz and synthesizers giving the whole film the feel of something form the world of Michael Mann. As I am sure I have made abundantly clear, I could ramble about Woo for days, but frankly he deserves that kind of devotion.
Once A Thief, as noted, focuses not on a singular thief, but a set of thieves who make their living stealing art. The group consists of the rambunctious and flippant Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), the stoic, but definitively opinionated James (Leslie Chung) and Cherie (Cherie Chung) the romantic interest of both men, as well as the cohesion to the groups somewhat wild methodologies. Finding themselves fresh off of a major heist in Paris, Joe and James agree to settle down and remove themselves from the heist business, much to the pleading of Cherie. However, when the group is offered two million dollars and a considerable amount of bragging rights to steal a painting from a well-guarded castle they prolong their retirement and are successful in their theft. Yet, the aftermath leads to a car chase and in the process Joe is injured in a kamikaze-like wreckage, leading to his being paralyzed from the waist down. Initially, James and Cherie believe Joe to be dead and continue on their life together, entering into a relationship and stepping out of world of heist considerably. However, when it is revealed that Joe is indeed still alive the group dynamic change, as Joe tempts James back into the business, while also causing Cherie to reconsider her marriage. Yet, Joe's immobility means that initially he must use wit as a method to gain information, passing his disability off as something that gains him access to bidding parlors, where he can confront his wrongdoers as well as elicit information to aid in their theft. Cherie even partakes in the process using her female traits to seduce a higher ranking museum owner into dancing, quickly stealing a key to have James make a print. This all occurs with a backstory that acknowledges the double upbringing of the trio, one that is headed by the violent and negative figure of Chow (Kenneth Tsang) who used their youth to exploit his own gains and the far friendlier cop Chu (Kong Chu) who teaches them to be productive citizens, although they still stray the way of thievery. However, what ultimately commences is a confrontation between the trio and their respective paternal figures, one that is heavy in shootouts, fighting and aggression. In the process Joe reveals just how non-limiting his disability is and helps to ward off their challengers, retaining a safe space and seeming intent to return to a life of normalcy, one that is might still involve an occasional art heist.
So if Woo's action cinema is about spectacle, what does one take as the point of most spectacular engagement. The obvious answer here might be the feats of heroics and athleticism that are generously inserted throughout the film, whether it be Joe dancing in a wheelchair, or the taut and frankly quite thrilling retrieval of the painting perched above the electrical floor. These moments are great and from a filmmaking standpoint evoke all the necessary points to be deem thrilling, but I would argue that the real spectacle at play in Woo's film comes by way of performing and engaging in symbolic roles which take with them various social stigmas and presumptions. From the earliest point, the problematic relationship with authority that the trio possess seems almost entirely rooted in their troubling relationship with the aggressive Chow, whose father status is never questioned in the minds of the group, yet his awfulness is wholly acknowledged. Indeed, it makes the emergence of Chu all the more curious, because despite their dismal living state, they are initially hesitant to leave Chow, because they associate him with provisions such as food and shelter (even if minimal). It is not until Chu buys them food that their understanding of his role alters. Indeed, this occurs to further extent when Cherie is navigating the relationships between Joe and James seeing the former as a point of desire that acts like a brother, where as she sees James as a brother who is acting like he is worthy of romantic affection. It is not until Joe is deemed non-existent that Cherie change her frame of reference, although the narrative makes its situational elements clear and certainly affirms this when Cherie leaves James to be with Joe in the end of the film, at least in an emotional sense, because Cherie is pregnant with James's child. The result is some bizarre triple space of paternal and maternal and a maternally acting paternal figure that is more joke than reality, although such a presence undoubtedly occurred in Hong Kong at the time. These are but a few of the layers of how things are performed and another layer could be added to how the idea of disability is performed in the film, but considering its integral nature of the narrative, spoilers will be avoided.
Key Scene: The castle art heist is really gripping, more so than I am use to from Woo, particularly as is the case for hims moments that he plays up for humor.
This is a delightful addition to my Woo viewing cannon, but I will admit that it might be decidedly hard to come by so renting it or tracking it down alternatively might be ideal.