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'ONCE A THIEF' IS CHOCK-FULL OF VIOLENCE; SWEET 'SABRINA' IS BEWITCHING

Whoa. Woo. It is hard to know if Fox is putting the name of the director of its Sunday movie, "John Woo's 'Once a Thief' " (8 p.m., Channel 29), in the title as an inducement to watch or as a warning.

Because Woo's "Once" is the most violent network television movie in at least a decade.

Like "Broken Arrow" -- Woo's most recent theatrical flick, which is chock-full of cartoon violence and stars John Travolta and Christian Slater -- "Once" is a remake of a 1991 Chinese film that is loaded with a numbing number of chases, shoot-outs, explosion and fistfights.

And those are just between family members.

It misses Travolta's charisma as badly as the villains' machine guns miss the heroes in "Once," but this visually arresting film still may steal your mind for two hours.

At one point, a villain who is shown a surprising photograph asks: "Is this a joke? Are you making fun of me?"

You almost wonder if that's what Woo is doing to old American television.

For the uninitiated, Woo is the Hong Kong action master who reportedly has inspired Quentin Tarantino and several young filmmakers who are living off Hollywood's current obsession with mindless cartoon entertainment.

"Once a Thief" is a film with a largely Canadian cast that should get a large American audience of anti-V-chip viewers who long for the day when violence ruled. It will undoubtedly be an international hit, because action films are big draws abroad.

If it scores big with the public and Congress isn't paying attention, "Once" could return as a regular series. It begins in Hong Kong, where we meet the "Mod Squad"-like family of thieves led by a godfather who is the proud owner of a Rembrandt painting.

Sandrine Holt ("Black Robe") plays Li Ann Tsei, the sexy woman adopted by the godfather after he saved her from a life of prostitution. As evidenced by his ownership of a Rembrandt and Li Ann, the godfather obviously knows beauty when he sees it.

Li Ann's partners in crime include the boss' son and her foster brother, Michael (American-born action star Michael Wong), and their adopted street-smart-aleck brother, Mac Ramsey (Ivan Sergei). Problem is, Michael and Mac both love their "sister" and want to marry her.

After a few explosions that could level the world, the three miraculously reconvene in Vancouver, where a principled ex-cop named Victor (Nicholas Lea, Detective Krycek of "The X-Files") falls in love with Li Ann, too.

More explosions and some ethical, trust and loyalty dilemmas ensue for our new "Mod Squad" trio, who join an elite crime-fighting unit and have to investigate extortion and gun smuggling by the very family that raised them.

The acting, especially by Wong, is a little stiff, and so is the dialogue. (Godfather to son: "You mean nothing to me if you're dead.") But the action is non-stop, and there several decent twists in between all the flying bullets and punches aimed at the men competing for Li Ann's heart.

"Once a Thief" is more a by-the-numbers job than a Rembrandt. But it certainly is a one-of-a-kind television movie these days. And that's as much a warning as an inducement to watch.

Speaking of old TV shows, Melissa Joan Hart (Nickelodeon's "Clarissa Explains It All") is back as the star of ABC's sweet new program "Sabrina, the Teen-age Witch" (8:30 tonight, Channel 7).

She plays a high school girl entering a new school on her 16th birthday after being told by her Aunt Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Aunt Zelda (Beith Broderick) that she is a witch just like they are.

Sabrina's skepticism disappears when she discovers in biology class that she can bring a dead frog back to life. It just isn't easy for her to control her powers, laughably turning an obnoxious classmate into a pineapple.

Set in the teen-age world, "Sabrina" is ripe for myriad story lines about peer pressure, wanting to be normal and maybe even how to make acne disappear.

Sabrina's world includes a talking black cat named Salem (voiced by Buffalo native Nick Bakay), a father (Robby Benson, who directed the episode) who talks to her through a book, and a Witches Council composed of Penn and Teller and Deborah Harry.

Tonight, Sabrina asks them to turn back time. Which is what ABC is hoping to do with this teen-age take on "Bewitched." With Hart's considerable appeal, vulnerability and style, "Sabrina" should steal a young teen-age viewer's heart, run for about six years and then land back on Clarissa's cable network for decades.

Benson also directs ABC's new comedy "Common Law" (9:30 p.m. Saturday, Channel 7). Greg Giraldo, a Harvard Law School graduate who turned to stand-up comedy, plays an anti-establishment, guitar-playing, long-haired Harvard Law graduate, John Alvarez, who works in a fancy firm. He has to hide his relationship with his girlfriend and co-counsel, Nancy (Megyn Price), because of office rules.

Meanwhile, John's old-fashioned father, a barber, isn't too happy that the couple is living together.

With four Latino actors in the cast, "Common Law" is a well-meaning show that almost makes you feel guilty for not laughing. The jokes are telegraphed, the situation is contrived, and the only thing the entire exercise makes a good case for is getting a haircut. And Giraldo's hair is considerably shorter in the opening credits than it is in the show.

Ratings: "Once a Thief": 3 1/2 stars out of 5.

"Sabrina": 3 1/2 stars.

"Common Law": 2 stars

It looks like Oct. 16 is now the date that Channel 49 will become an affiliate of the WB Network. Officials of the company that will are swapping Jamestown's new Channel 26 for Channel 49 have called newspapers to ask that their programs be listed on that date. It is unclear if Channel 26 will be on the air in time for Channel 49's religious programming to be carried without interruption.

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