Director Dante Lam’s filmmaking resume is more or less a hit or miss for me. I liked “Beast Stalker” but it wasn’t enough for me to take the plunge with “Fire of Conscience”. However, given all the accolades that his 2011 film had gotten in Hong Kong, I knew I had to check out “The Stool Pigeon”, which is also a reunion of sorts between Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung. I like crime dramas and I have to admit that with Nicholas Tse winning best actor and Dante Lam also won best director with the movie winning the Best film in the Asian film awards, my expectations have become a little more elevated. Well, no movie can really live up to such hype after all….
“The Stool Pigeon” as the title suggests is all about informants. Inspector Don Lee (Nick Cheung) is an expert in finding the right low-life for the right job. However, as the opening sequence shows, sometimes such jobs have such bad payoffs with the “Stoolie” as Lee’s past informant (Liu Kai-Chi) had suffered a great deal because of a botched operation. 10 years later, Lee recruits a new ‘stool pigeon’, a young man with the street name of “Ghost Jr.” to infiltrate a gang led by Tai Ping (Keung Ho-man) and “Barbarian” (Lu Yi). Wanting nothing to do with the cops, “Ghost” resists as much as he is able but soon realizes that Lee can provide him something that can help him free his sister from white slavery. Ghost finally says ‘yes’ and finds himself caught in a game between the bad guys and the good guys…but sometimes, it gets pretty difficult to tell which one is which.
“The Stool Pigeon” is your standard cop-crime drama runabout with director Dante Lam bringing forth certain complexities in its plot such as moral issues and concessions as to how far one must go in the trying to serve justice and as to how informants seemed to be always caught in a very hard place. The plot of the film is pretty predictable and honestly, it offers very little surprises. Going into the film, you would already put together that the characters would get what is due, all it matters is how, which and what they get coming for them. Lam focuses on certain themes about betrayals, how far one should go and if so, what does it make one? It is all pretty standard fare, and quite frankly such a film was already masterfully done in “Infernal Affairs” (which spawned the U.S. remake “TheDeparted”). I mean, there really isn’t much that “Stool Pigeon” can do that Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s film had already done.
What Dante Lam does well is the way he manages to add complexities to his characters through his script and the action sequences. The film had several tense scenes, and while it lacked the pizzazz of his previous “Beast Stalker” . The film was able to follow formula and yet, Lam (he also wrote the story) manages to divert from the usual expectations in his characters. To make his characters interesting, Lam adds some details that make them appear spiritually tortured in their back stories the more you get into the film. I have to admit that the film lags in certain areas, as I felt that the movie had to make the characters unnecessarily “in a bad way or tortured soul” kind of thing; the subplot with Don Lee got into its way of its own pacing. The connection between Ghost and Lee is all about what they need from the other, and the subplots threatened to slow down its momentum that I found the intended suspense in the action sequences was almost drained by the over-reaching drama. I am all for complexities, and I liked the imagination behind them, and even if Lam had the skill to pull it off, I felt that it was a little unfocused and had some issues with flow sequencing.
However the strong performances, several good action sequences and the themes do salvage the film from its own predictability. I have stated that the characters diverted from the usual expectations despite sticking to proven formula, despite the labor behind them, but the way the supporting cast and the two protagonists flowed through the scenes of mistrust, schemes and getaways were nicely executed. There are also some good car chase sequences as true to his street name, the “Ghost Jr.” character is one excellent dude behind the wheel. Some of the scenes reminded me of “Initial D”, while some had that feel behind the wheel as in “Drive”. The direction did well with the car chases and he kept things with a sense of restraint. It was all for the build up for the huge pay off in the final act, where the film gets immersed in brutal, gritty violent sequences, where Ghost, Ah-Di (Kwai Lun-Mei, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) and Don Lee finally find themselves in a life or death struggle.
“The Stool Pigeon” have been carried by its strong performances (China-Taiwan-Hong Kong cast) , and despite some issues in pacing and the subplot with the dancer (Miao Pu) proving to be a little too much, the film is one entertaining feature. It may have also been held back with the fact that it is a Mainland China co-production that it proved to be a little predictable. It stuck to its own “bad guys gets their due” staple that it is really easy to know where it was headed. Nonetheless, decent action and the Tse-Cheung connection was effective as always, with a lot of emotional reverberation to make the film work out. Nope, it isn’t as awesome as “Infernal Affairs” and it lacks some power that the hype behind it is a little too much. But “Stool Pigeon” is a film worth a look, at least once.