This is the stuff of what Hong Kong action crime thrillers are made of, with the sets being the real streets of the city upon which a high intense cop and robbers drama unfolds, and engaging characters that you actually care about. Already having given us Fire of Conscience earlier this year, it seems that there is nothing stopping hot property of the moment Dante Lam, who had helmed hard hitting same genre movies such as Sniper and Beast Stalker, which starred Liu Kai Chi, Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung in leading roles reuniting for Stool Pigeon, looking set to have been improving film by film, and frankly is fast becoming a firm favourite storyteller of mine for Asian crime thrillers after Johnnie To with his consistency for gripping edge of your seat material.
Thanks to the success of Infernal Affairs, we've seen in recent years a fair share of police dramas that deal with that of an undercover cop either battling his loyalty and allegiance, his return to a life of normalcy, or even have his persona spill over to real life through immense popularity in the cult character, like Laughing Gor. We know that the police have as part of their investigative arsenal the infiltration of undercover cops, but what's often overlooked is the role of the police informant in a leading role, until now.
Dante Lam's story is extremely engaging in its examination of this peculiar outsourced role, where one is backed by the formalities of contract to define a relationship of transactional nature – material wealth in exchange for critical information, with bonuses to come with milestones achieved too! But such dangerous work close to where the action is with risks involved doesn't impact a police personnel, and this is clearly a win situation for the cops because this risk of being caught and maimed/killed in the course of an accidental discovery is transferred to a non-uniformed person, often someone desperate enough and comfortable to be living on the fringes of society, such as an ex-criminal. But being human, the cops have to learn to not become closer than necessary to their informants, so as to minimize guilty pangs should there be a need to no longer support them, and literally to throw them to the sharks for the greater good – the tragic irony of it all.
Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung swap sides now from Beast Stalker, and Tse plays the role of Ghost Jr, an ex-convict released only to find his sister being pimped by the underworld to pay off their dead father's gambling debt. After some deliberation he takes on the offer by Cheung's inspector Don, and officially in the eyes of the law Ghost becomes Don's informant, with a direct line to his handler and if necessary being able to waiver any arrest if made during the course of his work as an informant. His role is to infiltrate and report back on the gang activities of Barbarian (Chinese actor Lu Yi) and his wife (played by Kwai Lun-Mei), who are planning a jewellery shop heist, and are in need of a driver, where Ghost's skills will come into handy.
Just like how Donnie Yen is discovering a new lease of life in his career as an action hero, Nick Cheung, once overlooked as leading man material, now finds new ground in crime thrillers, and being equally adept at both positive and negative roles just brings out the wide spectrum of his acting abilities. Dante Lam's cop character so far have always been flawed and pained, and being dedicated time meant a subplot involving his wife and relatives, which serve to deepen the character's backstory. In fact, the many human drama that Lam injects into his characters all provide them a lot of depth rather than to be just that one-dimensional role most cops and robbers story tend to trap themselves into .
For instance, Kwai Lun-Mei's gangster moll role is something that's totally different from her usual sweetie pie ones, and she has enough of what it takes to pack a punch in this genre, which is surprising to say the least, in both delivery and providing to be the wildcard in Stool Pigeon. Boldly casting her against type is what I felt showed the courage of Lam and team to explore new ground (including Stool Pigeon's premise) and having seasoned actors, each of whom have won acting awards in recent years, also serves as an indicator that you're getting powerful performances all round.
Action-wise, Stool Pigeon is no sitting duck. While time is devoted to the human drama, action is not just left to plain boring gunfights, as there are a lot more moments here involving chases from vehicles to foot and hide and seek that provides most of the thrills with its superb editing and execution, either in a crowded market evading a swarm of cops, or between apartment units to avoid detection. Like most Dante Lam films, the finale provides that bang for the buck, and Stool Pigeon has one of the most intense sequences he had come up with thus far, set in an abandoned school where the set design provides a visually arresting feast for the eyes, while your heart feels and roots for characters going all out for each other's throats.
I'd prefer this over Fire of Conscience, and easily is a contender for one of the best films this year! Highly recommended, and I'll be more than keen to watch this in its original Cantonese language track.