Thursday, June 21, 2012

STOOL PIGEON (HK 2010) -- B-

Kwai Lun-Mei and Nicholas Tse on the run in The Stool Pigeon.

Director: Dante Lam, Screenwriter: Jack Ng, Producers: Candy Leung, Zhang Dajun, Ren Yue, Stephen Lam, Cast: Nick Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Kwai Lun-Mei, Liu Kai-Chi, Miao Pu, Li Yi


After 2008's well-received Beast Stalker, Dante Lam brought us 2010's Fire of Conscience, which was, in my estimation anyway, a major letdown in comparison to its immediate predecessor. For 2011's The Stool Pigeon, Lam reunites his two leads from Beast Stalker -- Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse -- and adds the luminous Kwai Lun-Mei to the mix, but the resultant film is a depressing, melodrama-heavy crime thriller that feels more like a lateral career move for Lam after Fire of Conscience.

In the early goings of The Stool Pigeon, we meet the cold-as-ice Inspector Don Li (Nick Cheung) who risks the life of a criminal informant (Liu Kai-Chi) in order to bring down a notorious gangster. Unfortunately, the raid goes sour, and Inspector Li's stool pigeon suffers the brutal consequences. As a result, Nick Cheung's character becomes guilt-ridden by his actions and tries to take care of his trusted stool pigeon who has since become a vagrant. Despite what happened, however, Li continues his questionable police tactics.
"I'm not saying you're ugly, but bald just isn't a good look for you, Nic."

To replace his go-to snitch, Li recruits a soon-to-be-released prisoner, the curiously nicknamed "Ghost, Jr." (a bald Nicholas Tse) to do his dirty work. Inspector Li promises to pay big bucks if Ghost Jr. will use his street cred to get close to a team of criminals planning a big jewelry heist. The prospective stoolie initially refuses Li's offer, but seeing as how his deceased father owed gangsters a lot of money before he died, and his sister has been forced into prostitution to pay off that debt, Ghost Jr. has little option but to accept. How else will he possibly save HK $1 million to save his sister?

Once undercover, Ghost Jr. proceeds to insinuate himself amongst gang leaders Tai Ping (Keung Ho-Man) and Barbarian (Lu Yi). Ensconced firmly in this new criminal milieu, he meets Dee (Kwai Lun Mei), the requisite gangster moll with the heart of gold. Will Ghost, Jr. and Dee fall for each other? Will Inspector Li and Ghost, Jr. form a manly bond? And could there be a double-cross in store for audiences? If you've ever seen any second-rate noir knock off, I think you'll know the answer to that.

There's a saying that heroes are only as good as their villains, and the bad guys here are woefully generic. The star power here is focused entirely on the leads. For their parts, Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung enliven the proceedings considerably, on what is really nothing more than a standard cops and robbers genre flick. The single best scene in the film involves both actors, as we see Ghost Jr.'s cover nearly blown when Inspector Li pays him a visit. Sadly, the normally dependable Kwai Lun Mei isn't given much to do.

The real problem is one of narrative momentum. Not only does the film sag in the middle act, but Ghost, Jr. seems so damn honorable throughout the film that there's never really any tension as to whether he's going to turn full-on crook; it's simply a matter of whether or not he's going to get caught. The only real narrative tension involves the mystery surrounding Inspector Li's past. Throughout the film, he goes to a dance studio and talks up the secretary (Miao Pu), but as we see in early sequences, there's more to this relationship than meets the eye. Unfortunately, the execution of this subplot is very much in line with old school Hong Kong cinema, especially evident in its haphazardly inserted, slapdash, and jaw-droppingly tragicomic conclusion. Cheung acts his ass off here, projecting a cool exterior that hides a boiling rage and guilty conscience, for something which I won't spoil here.

To its credit, the film is gorgeously shot, making the seedy world it portrays look quite beautiful in the process. While I think there's enough going in its favor for a marginal recommendation, I ultimately found The Stool Pigeon to be a gritty, grimy, and thoroughly depressing jaunt through the world of noir. For some, that'll be enough, but for me, the narrative was perfunctory, feeling as if the director was merely ticking off a checklist of noir conventions. If there was a grade between C+ and B-, I would give the movie that ranking, but based on the strength of its two leads, I'm going to be a bit more generous in my evaluation. Your mileage will vary.


30th Hong Kong Film Awards

-- Best Film (Nomination)
-- Best Director (Nomination): Dante Lam
-- Best Actor (Nomination): Nick Cheung
-- Best Actor (Winner): Nicholas Tse
-- Best Supporting Actor (Nomination) Liu Kai Chi
-- Best Screenplay (Nomination): Jack Ng
-- Best Film Editing (Nomination): Matthew Hui, Chan Ki-Hop
-- Best Sound (Kinson Tsang): Nominated

17th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards

-- Film of Merit (Winner)

5th Asian Film Awards

-- Best Cinematography (Kenny Tse -- Nomination)

The Stool Pigeon is available on Region 1 DVD and Region-free Blu-Ray from Well-Go USA. As of this writing, the film is also streaming on Netflix Instant in HD.

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