Thoughts on “John Woo’s Once a Thief”

So, this was another of the short little series that I had found while sorting through the closet where I keep my DVDs and decided to add the front-end of my TV show watching this year, to finally finish it off and get a sense of accomplishment to start out the new schedule. This was a mostly Canadian show that I had somehow managed to catch either when it came out or in reruns, and it only lasted a season. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, the comment was that it started out with high ratings which dropped off drastically as the season went on, until it was eventually cancelled. I have a theory as to why that happened that I’ll get into later.

The basic premise is that two people who were adopted for various reasons into the Chinese criminal family of the Tangs have fallen in love, and when the real son of the head of the family wants to marry Li An, her lover Mac hatches an insane plan for them to run away together. The plan fails, but Li An manages to get away while she believes that Mac was killed. Eventually, it is revealed that Mac was actually in prison, and a woman who will be known only as the Director comes to offer him a way out if he comes to work for her organization. It turns out that Li An was also recruited into that organization, along with her now-finance Vic. And they are all going to work together as a team.


Anyway, the acting and characters mostly work. Despite not being the focus character, Jennifer Dale’s Director is a pretty meaty role, as she has to come across as tough, sexy, and a bit depraved, which she pulls off quite well. Mac is played by the Ivan Sergei who has done a number of small roles (including a recurring one on “Charmed”), while Nicholas Lea plays Vic (and is probably best known as Krycek on X-Files). They both manage to pull off their roles well, with Mac being the irresponsible and fun one with Vic being the more responsible but staid one. They have plenty of reasons to dislike each other aside from their rivalry over Li An, which is good because that triangle falls out fairly quickly when Li An decides that she doesn’t want to get married.

Sandrine Holt plays Li An and I think she does a decent job with the role, but the major issue is that Li An’s character suffers from having no real defined role. There are hints at roles for the character, but none of them ever pay off. The love triangle with Mac and Vic dies out relatively quickly. Her as someone the Director was grooming to replace her is inconsistently done, especially when Victoria Pratt comes on as Jackie who is a rival for that position and while Li An is properly hostile to her there’s nothing done to show that she’s considering her as a rival for a position that Li An herself is striving for. So that’s not developed enough to anchor her character. What they could have done, if they wanted to drop the love triangle angle, was use that to develop her role on the team. She could have been attracted to Mac’s spontaneity as well as to Vic’s responsibility, which once that angle was dropped she could have parlayed into her role on the team: she likes the excitement of the missions and so is sympathetic to Mac’s attitude, but understands that not going off half-cocked is important to not getting killed. Thus, she would be a bridge on the team between Mac’s view and Vic’s view. However, they didn’t do that, and so all they left for the character was her being excessively competent, which doesn’t really work because there are only two ways for her to be that competent when compared to the other two. The first way is to make the other two less competent, which hurts their characters. The second way is to make her uber-competent, which hurts her character. So that doesn’t work for her either.

The main defining thing about the show, though, is that while the pilot is pretty standard crime action, the show quickly move into being rather bizarre and surreal. One of the funniest moments is fight between Mac and someone else where another fight keeps triggering a change in the music, and then Mac and his opponent change their fight to align with the music. At one point, the Canadian national anthem comes on, and they stop and stand at attention to respect that. It’s pretty well done and ends just as it’s about to wear out its welcome. There are dream sequences and a whole host of odd characters — both criminals and fellow agents — to experience. But I think that this is also responsible for the drop in ratings, as those who were attracted by the standard action will find these sequences too weird to enjoy, and those who might have been attracted by the oddness will have been turned away by how standard it was in the pilot and first few episodes. That being said, I kinda liked the surreal parts.

So, the ultimate assessment: would I watch this again? Which now means “Does it go into my boxes of DVDs that I’m not likely to rewatch any time soon or does it go into my closet with the DVDs that I do think I’ll rewatch again?” And the answer is: it goes into the closet, for two main reasons. The first is that sometimes you do want to watch something that’s just plain goofy, and despite some serious parts it works really well for that. The second is that I think that I want to binge it like “Scream Queens” to really immerse myself in the weirdness in a way that watching two episodes a night for four days a week doesn’t. So, yeah, it’s not the best show, but it’s also not a standard show, and that makes me want to watch it again.

4 Responses to “Thoughts on “John Woo’s Once a Thief””

  1. New Year Accomplishments Update | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] a number of the shows that I’ve always meant to watch, like “Scream Queens”, “John Woo’s Once a Thief”, and “Alien Nation”. At the same time, I was able to rewatch some shows, like […]

  2. Thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] evil forces in the world above. The problem is that this runs into what I felt the problem was with “John Woo’s Once a Thief”. There, the pilot was standard action, while the show itself was often delightfully surreal. People […]

  3. First Thoughts on “Pretty Little Liars” (End Season 1) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] simple teen/high school soap opera right from the start, and so avoids the issues that a show like “John Woo’s Once a Thief” had, where the pilot presents one type of show and attracts a certain type of audience and then […]

  4. Thoughts on “Time of Your Life” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] it, but in watching it I think that its biggest problem might be the same sort of issue that hit “John Woo’s Once a Thief”:  the show that it was that might have attracted viewers was not the show it advertised itself to […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: