Before “WINDTALKERS,” “FACE OFF” and “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2,” Director John Woo still had a thriving career within the foreign film market.  His “ONCE A THIEF” combined action with comedy, in a way that many American films have tried to duplicate, but have seldom succeeded.

Chow Yun Fat stars as Joe, whom was taken in by a thief as an orphan, and taught the ways of that world, enough so, to become the best in the business.  Unfortunately, there are numerous other subplots taking place, making the film more convoluted than necessary.  Along with Joe, as orphans, were James and Cherie, also tutored in the ways of thievery.  As the three grow up into master thieves, a sort of repressed affection for Cherie is unveiled, and when a robbery involving a cursed painting goes awry, Joe is left for dead, leaving the other two to marry.  Of course, Joe turns up and bearing no ill-will, wishes nothing more than to help his old friends escape from the crime world they’ve been a part of.  Unfortunately, the crime boss who raised them would rather kill them, than allow them escape from his control, and the rest of the film is built around this predicament.

Woo creates some great moments within the film, but it’s extremely uneven. The comedic moments come close to becoming overly ridiculous, enough to hurt the viewers’ suspension of belief, so important for the film to work.

COLUMBIA TRISTAR has preserved the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with 16:9 enhancement.  The image is generally solid, but there is some excessive grain at times. Colors are fine, but never really vibrant, as Woo strives for a high-tech neon look in many scenes, again bringing out grain.  Fleshtones appear natural.

COLUMBIA TRISTAR has presented A Dolby Digital 2.0 Cantonese mix as well as English mix.  While both 2.0 mixes are suitable, the original mix is far superior. The dubbing is just really bad on the English version.  Surround use is limited, however dialogue is always intelligible and free from distortion on both mixes.  Trailers for other films have been included.