Double feature carries Woo name, but not trademarks


By Tom Maurstad / The Dallas Morning News

Like any good brand, the name John Woo is taken as an assurance of certain values. To action-flick fans, Mr. Woo has distinguished himself as a brand name they can trust, a two-syllable guarantee of dazzling violence.

The Movie Channel makes sure to put the Woo brand right up front for tonight's double feature, where consumers can't miss it - John Woo's Once a Thief: The Director's Cut and Family Business, 6:05 and 8 tonight, The Movie Channel.

But in the business of brand names, quality control is key. And as the first two chapters in this trilogy prove, that's a concept Mr. Woo hasn't yet mastered.

Simply put, these films are - a few stirring moments notwithstanding - schlocky throwaways that leave Mr. Woo's name seeming like an empty sales pitch.

The blows to consumer confidence begin with the confusing title of the first installment. Fans of the Hollywood-by-way-of-Hong-Kong director's work may see the title, Once a Thief: The Director's Cut, and reasonably presume it is some pumped-up version of Mr. Woo's 1991 Hong Kong film, Once a Thief. But no, this is the "director's cut" of a later Fox TV movie that never aired. (There also happens to be a character dubbed "the Director.")

Oh, well. At least Mr. Woo directed The Director's Cut, which is more than can be said of the second installment. The opener starts promisingly enough as the camera glides about a floor full of couples competing in a ballroom-dance contest.

Just imagine the eye-popping fun Mr. Woo is about to have when the bullets start to fly amid all those colorful gowns and tuxedoed musicians. But while an excessive amount of gunplay eventually pops up, it's no big deal, with the only flash of trademark John-Woo-lery being a slow-mo somersault.

In quick order, we are introduced to the story's essential players, a trio of thieves: the beautiful Li Ann (Sandrine Holt) and the two best friends who love her, Mac (Ivan Sergei) and Michael (Michael Wong). They work for the head of the Tang family, a superpowerful Asian mob.

Once the connections of love and trust are established, the betrayals begin to fly. As is customary in Mr. Woo's work, the story plays with archetypal configurations - a lover's triangle, brothers/best friends in love with the same woman, and all sorts of father-son stuff. But here the story is so haphazardly told, the dialogue so dashed off and the performances so cheap and shallow that the movie never comes close to generating any resonance.

Eventually, Mac and Li Ann land in Vancouver, where through a series of half-witted coincidences they end up working for a supersecret anti-crime force headed by, you guessed it, the Director. Mac finds himself teamed up with his ex-lover Li Ann and her new fiance, Vic (Nicholas Lea). This new version of the lover's triangle ends up going after - who else - Michael, who has come to - where else - Vancouver to establish the Tang family's Canadian outpost.

With so much bad writing and acting flying around, the viewer is forced to take refuge in the film's visual offerings. Mr. Woo comes up with an occasional reward for the effort. You can see some of his signature motifs at work here, such as the mirror-image parallels he gets working between two opposing characters. Face/Off fans will recognize the technique as old lover Mac and new lover Vic square off in Li Ann's apartment - Mac brings her white roses, Vic brings her red. The scene ends in a pretty cool fight; Mr. Woo has a lot of clever fun as his combatants tear at each other while trying not to damage any of their beloved's furniture.

Aside from a few flourishes - the use of stuttering slow-motion as a visual exclamation point - The Director's Cut is Mr. Woo at his most perfunctory. Which puts it head-and-shoulders above the second installment, Family Business.

This is a John Woo movie in name only - he is neither writer nor director; he is one of four executive producers. Continuing the saga of Mac, Vic and Li Ann, Family Business is a stunningly stupid mishmash of subplots that wouldn't make sense even if you cared to make sense of them. The few Woo flourishes of the first film are replaced here by faux Woo flourishes, mostly in the form of gratuitous slow-mo, that come off as what they are - cheap knock-offs.

The subsoap-opera level of drama doesn't bode well for the final installment, John Woo's Once a Thief: Brother Against Brother, airing Aug. 22. Maybe Mr. Woo was just too busy gearing up for the Mission: Impossible sequel to pay much attention to this trilogy. Any more lemons like this in the product line and the Woo brand name could find itself on a one-way street to Edsel City.