Once a Thief [1996]

A romantic art-heist comedy, far lighter in tone than most of director John Woo's work, and in places much sillier. As kids, Chow Yun-fat, Cherie Chung, and Leslie Cheung (A Chinese Ghost Story) were starving street urchins together. They are rescued from the law and trained by a Fagin-like older crook, who transforms them into glossy international cat burglars. The best sections (especially the opening and closing heists) are as masterfully smooth as any action set pieces in the Woo canon. But the tone wavers alarmingly, from the sophisticated (Chow as Cary Grant) to the savage to the sentimental and back again, with a disastrous slapstick coda set in the states, in which the baby food hits the fan. The busy plotting distracts us from a strong theme: the struggle between good and bad father figures (the other is a stalwart cop played by Chu Kong) for the souls of these noble criminals. Not to be confused with the rather limp 1995 remake, produced by Woo for Canadian TV in 1995, with The X-Files' sinister Krycek, Nicholas Lea, surprisingly effective in the Chow part. --David Chute

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