Once a Thief (1996)

Reviewed by Anthony Leong; Copyright 1997

Serving as the pilot for a Fox television series and produced by Canada's Alliance Productions, it is a remake of Woo's 1991 godawful caper movie that reeked of commercialism. Mac Ramsey (Ivan Sergei), Li Ann Tsei (Sandrine Holt), and Michael Tang (Hong Kong heartthrob Michael Wong) are the three 'children' of a powerful Hong Kong underworld crime lord (Robert Ito), who took them in and raised them when they were young. They are trained thieves who steal exotic works of art with grand schemes and acrobatic execution. However, Mac and Li Ann begin to question the ethics of their work when their 'father' requests Mac to take over the arms dealing end of the family business. When they try to escape, Mac is caught by the police and Li Ann is forced to leave her love behind.

After rotting away in jail, Mac is coerced into joining a super-secret international law enforcement unit, led by the Director (stilted acting courtesy of Jennifer Dale). After joining, he learns that Li Ann is also working for the same organization, however, she is partnered with her new fiancé, Victor Mansfield (Nicholas Lea, Krycek on "The X-Files"). Li Ann, believing that Mac was dead, has moved on with her life. Their assignment is to take down the Hong Kong crime organization that they were so intimately involved in. To further complicate things, the cold and ruthless Michael has arrived in Vancouver to kill Mac and claim Li Ann for his wife.

It had its moments. The whole portfolio of John Woo cinematography techniques were there, the freeze-frame dissolves, the tracking shots, the dramatic dolly-ins, the juxtapositional cut-scenes, and of course, the glorious slo-mo. But unfortunately, this was a television project, and so the gunplay was toned down because of it. Though the body count was virtually non-existent, the shoot-outs still had Woo's trademark style.

Jennifer Dale wasn't the only one with the bad acting or the lousy lines. Ivan Sergei came across as a buffoon, nowhere near the complex tortured characters of Woo's halcyon days. Holt and Lea were tolerable, and Michael Wong, who was never a really good actor to begin with (check out his wonderful performance in Jackie Chan's "Thunderbolt") is passable.

"Once a Thief" essentially suffers from the split-personality of the previous OAT-- is it action, drama, or comedy? Instead of getting a crisp clean storyline, what ended up on the screen was a pastiche of conflicting styles, leaving a muddled mess of a movie. I hope this issue gets sorted out by the time the series hits the air.

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