The world of the thief is one that the cinema can explore in a million different ways. Some screen swindlers steal for the sheer thrill of it (The Thomas Crown Affair), some do it out of revenge (Ocean’s Thirteen), and some do it just to survive (Les Miserables). Any way you slice it, though, thieves and their criminal exploits often make for compelling cinema — just not in the case of the Hong Kong action/drama A World Without Thieves. It has some big ambitions and an honorable premise to work with, but the execution is almost painfully melodramatic, as if not only is the film not that much fun to begin with, you’re not even sure it really knows how to cut loose and have a good time.
Bo (Andy Lau) and Li (Rene Liu) are a couple who’ve made a living conning their way across the country. But after visiting a Buddhist temple, Li has a change of heart and proposes that the pair start leading an honest life from now on. This puts her at odds with her beau after the couple encounters Dumbo (Wang Baoqiang), an extremely wide-eyed country kid traveling by train to start a new life — with a boatload of cash on his person. Li wants to protect Dumbo and ensure a safe passage for him, while Bo sees nothing but yen in his eyes and tries working behind his girlfriend’s back to abscond with the cash himself. However, Bo’s not the only one who has his sights on Dumbo’s money, as also on the train is pickpocket mastermind Uncle Li (Ge You) and his crew, who see the kid as an innocent lamb just begging to be robbed.
Despite all of the double-crossings and sleight-of-hand trickery that takes place throughout A World Without Thieves, the film itself actually holds close some rather simple but often effective ideas. The story raises some intriguing points about the nature of a thief, especially in how it discusses who’s more to blame for a heist: the perpetrator or the incredibly naive victim like Dumbo who all but carries around a neon sign saying “PLEASE ROB ME!” An interesting angle is also introduced in the form of Li’s sort of born-again Buddhism, with such ideas as karma affecting her decision to abandon her thieving ways while she still can. When it sets its mind to it, A World Without Thieves can prove to be very thematically nimble, keeping viewers on their toes with a combination of philosophy and good old-fashioned con artist movie theatrics. Writer/director Feng Xiaogang serves up a couple of those wily sequences that make movies like this so enjoyable, in which the more morally-shifty characters do what they do best, this feature’s highlights including Bo using a hidden razor to help pick pockets at a temple and a scene in which Uncle Li’s femme fatale protege (Li Bingbing) tries to make a grab for Dumbo’s savings.
But the problem is that A World Without Thieves provides such instances too few and far between. Filling in the remainder of the running time is a wildly inconsistent script, which gives viewers a rousing heist sequence one second, then the next thing you know, two of the characters are engaging in some bizarre, slo-mo martial arts routine, backed up by a score that seems to have been borrowed from an Almodovar film. Xiogang doesn’t seem to have quite a steady hand in dealing with the introspective nature of the story, what with the simultaneous condemnation and glorification of thiefdom coming across as more than a little uneasy, not to mention a lot of hollow, repetitive dialogue coming from Bo. The whole story seems way too melodramatic for its own good, with the astoundingly weepy score inspiring many a chuckle and an ending twist that requires some investment in the characters that you never get around to forming. The acting is equally as mixed, with decent enough performances delivered by Lau and Liu, and, on the downside, You making for a fairly drab villain and Baoqiang coming across as waaaaay too green, even for a movie character.
I appreciate A World Without Thieves for not settling into the sort of predictable rut that most action films find themselves stuck in. There’s a little more thought going on here than in anything with Steven Seagal’s name topping the bill, but in the end, good intentions are all that seem to be fueling this mild disappointment.