When we last left Dante Lam, he’d just followed up his career-defining Beast Stalker with the anticipated Fire of Conscience. Expectations for Fire of Conscience were high and understandably so – Beast Stalker had great acting and dynamite tension. Mixing strong characters and thrilling action better than most Hong Kong films have in a good long while. But Fire of Conscience underwhelmed, delivering an uneven experience weighed down by too many characters. An overstuffed storyline, pretentious themes and disconnected though still excellent action. If Beast Stalker was a resounding leap forward for Lam, Conscience was a quiet step back.
Thankfully, Lam’s newest film is The Stool Pigeon (Ke Chi Diem). A reunion of his Beast Stalker principals. Actors Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse, and writer Jack Ng – and an entertaining and involving Hong Kong film. As usual, Lam combines morally complex characters and strong action beats into a hopefully potent mix. But unlike Fire of Conscience, the mixture isn’t completely oil and water. Here we get character through action, with relationships forged and broken through chases, gunfights, and bloodshed. Lam has better actors this time too; Cheung and Tse are both deserving award-winners. And are joined by Hong Kong’s most effective overactor Liu Kai-Chi and Taiwan’s willowy muse Guey Lun-Mei. After the minor stumble of Fire of Conscience, Stool Pigeon is a step in the right direction for Dante Lam.
As the title indicates, Stool Pigeon is about informants, with Nick Cheung playing Inspector Don Lee. An expert at recruiting and using lower-level criminals to bust even more dangerous ones. But there’s a dark side to the biz, witnessed in an opening sequence where Lee betrays an informant (Liu Kai-Chi) when unexpected circumstances get in the way of a bust.
Flash-forward a year and Lee recruits a new stool pigeon, jailed driver Ghost Jr. (Nicholas Tse or Ta Dinh Phong) in hopes of bringing down jewelry thieves Tai Ping (Keung Ho-Man) and Barbarian (Lu Yi). As most criminals would, Ghost Jr. wants nothing to do with the fuzz. But Lee has some powerful tools: money and leverage. He can help Ghost Jr. in ways that his old gang pals can’t. And if Ghost Jr. says “no”, Lee can force his cooperation. Eventually, Ghost Jr. has no choice but to become Lee’s latest stool pigeon.
For some stretches, Stool Pigeon plays like a procedural on the cop-informant dynamic. With Lam showing us the compromises and moral issues involved in using bad guys to catch other bad guys. Inspector Lee can apply police pressure to get his way. Making the stool pigeon less of a partner and more of a pawn coerced into betraying his kind. Then, if Lee wants a little more, he can always change the deal. After all, who cares about the well being of a three-time loser when seeking justice? On the flip side, if you betray someone who trusts you for your own ends, what does that make you?
These are worthwhile themes and Dante Lam and Jack Ng’s script tackles them smartly. Making both Inspector Lee and Ghost Jr. into strong and involving characters. Both Cheung and Tse are excellent in their roles, with Cheung once again edging Tse as the efficient yet tortured Inspector Lee. Beast Stalker earned Cheung a record six acting awards. And while he may not win trophies for Stool Pigeon, nominations are not out of the question.
The strong acting and fine themes make up for the general predictability of Stool Pigeon’s storyline. Whereas Beast Stalker reached cathartic, thrilling heights. Stool Pigeon adheres more to the tried and true, with characters never breaking from conventional expectations. Some details and subplots are more labored than they should be. With Inspector Lee’s backstory reaching particularly egregious heights in order to make his character exceptionally and unnecessarily tortured.
Furthermore, some of the film’s biggest twists are handed to characters who lack the same generous development as Inspector Lee and Ghost Jr. That uneven focus hurts the film’s momentum, but Lam’s execution compensates nicely. Stool Pigeon has a number of strong, kinetic action sequences, with the climactic school-set chase/beatdown proving surprisingly brutal. At its most powerful, the violence in Stool Pigeon feels like a modern update on eighties-vintage Ringo Lam.
The China-Taiwan-Hong Kong cast helps in varying degrees. Oddly, Lu Yi is dubbed into Cantonese while Guey Lun-Mei speaks in her own Mandarin. They, along with Keung Ho-Man and Miao Pu deliver solid performances. And Liu Kai-Chi chews scenery in his gloriously inimitable manner. This is really the Nick and Nic show, however, with both outshining the whole cast in screentime and performance.
The action and acting carries the action film (phim hanh dong 2021) such that it compensates for quite possibly Stool Pigeon’s biggest problem: the curse of the China co-production. More specifically, everyone gets what’s coming to them, making every character’s fate easy to guess. Still, the filmmakers and actors infuse the situations with enough emotional resonance and kinetic surprise to make the whole package work. If the challenge facing HK filmmakers is how to work within SARFT’s confines. Then Dante Lam and Jack Ng succeed in a strong, if not completely stellar fashion.