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The Stool Pigeon -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- Smarting with as much psychological as physical bruising, "The Stool Pigeon" is an action film with a grave, melancholic strain. It's a conventional yarn, slightly dragged out and belabored by director Dante Lam, in which a beleaguered cop and his desperado informant develop loyalties in spite of themselves but are forced into betrayals against their wishes. Nevertheless, the performances Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse deliver make one agonize with their quandary.

First day of domestic release in Hong Kong bodes well with $112,000 worth of tickets sold. Overseas ancillary looks hopeful. Reactions from major festivals however, have been lukewarm, possibly due to the emotionally overcooked ending and familiarity of the police-mole relationship in Hong Kong cinema. Indeed, despite reuniting the same main cast and mapping out neat symmetries of character and plot with Lam's critically lauded "Beast Stalker," "Pigeon" falls short in tension and stylistic brio if judged as a sister film.

In a prologue, police stakes out a factory to round up a gang of ice dealers. Senior inspector Don Li (Nick Cheung) jeopardizes the life of his stool pigeon Jabber (Liu Kai-chi) in his urge to nail the big boss Marco. Marco escapes anyway, but Jabber, seriously injured and traumatized, has to go under.

For Jabber's replacement, Li finds fresh-out-of-jail Ghost Jr. (Nicholas Tse) and offers him a reward of $130,000 in exchange for penetrating a band of armed robbers planning a jewelry heist. Of course, things get complicated. He falls in love with Dee (Kuai Lun Mei), the disgruntled girlfriend of the gang's leader Barbarian (Lu Yi). The pressure (and temptation) mounts for Ghost Jr. to throw in his lot with the criminals as Li seems increasingly incapable of safeguarding his informant's interests.

The narrative could benefit from more tautness. As if worried about the audience's attention span for drama, action scenes are intermittently inserted through out but they don't build to one big momentum. Some become run-of-the-mill. Still, the main set pieces have a thrilling ferocity.

In the awesome climax, Barbarian tracks down Ghost Jr. and Dee to a disused classroom. His brutality is so pitiless and the couple's desperation so vivid even desks and chairs seem as menacing as knives and spears. The action is partly shot from the point of view of Li, who watches from a window across the classroom but cannot get over to their side in time. It mirrors the prologue when Jabber is stabbed by Marco.

The camera is fixed on the iron-gate behind which Jabber is trapped, and nothing else is shown except his frightened howling off-screen. The audience is made to share Li's frustration as an impotent spectator of the horror. Other mise-en-scenes also exude a prison or cage like atmosphere, such as the hellishly grubby and labyrinthine housing estate where Li and Ghost Jr. have their secret meetings.

For all its violence, bloodshed and heavy combat, "The Stool Pigeon" is less a hard-boiled cop thriller than a melodrama of human suffering, underscored by a crushing aesthetic of pain. Every main character wear cuts, plasters, casts, limps or gets hospitalized. Ghost Jr. is more of a martyr than a hero, ennobled by his ability to endure bullying rather than power to fight back or defend his loved ones.

Li's scars are psychological rather than physical. Guilt weighs on his conscience. From day one, he is on the war path against the police's attitude to sow seeds of trust among the stoolies only to harvest their information like cash crops. His quasi-romantic interlude with a crippled dance instructor (Miao Pu) later reveals another personal debt. Were these scenes better structured, Li's fall and redemption would have even greater impact.

While Tse gives an impassioned performance, Cheung's role is actually the more challenging, since it is not an actor's showpiece like his award-winning role as the cruel-but-kind kidnapper in "Beast Stalker." Don Li's struggles are internal and Cheung gives a subdued rendering that make his failings human. Kwai is cast against type as a gangster moll. Even with punk rocker makeup, she lacks the slightly vampy sensuality needed for the role and looks thoroughly artificial.

Opened: In Hong Kong August 26
Production: Emperor Classic Films Co. Ltd., Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, Sil-Metropole Organization Ltd.
Cast: Nick Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Kwai Lun-Mei, Liu Kai-chi, Miao Pu, Li Yi
Director-story by: Dante Lam
Screenwriter: Jack Ng
Producers: Candy Leung, Zhang Dajun, Ren Yue, Stephen Lam
Executive producers: Albert Lee, Wang Zhonglei, Cheung Hong-tat
Director of photography: Kenny Tse
Production designer: Pater Wong
Music: Henry Lai
Costume designer: Stephanie Wong
Editor: Chan Ki-hop
Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures
No rating, 112 minutes