The Stool Pigeon may not unlock any previously untapped dramatic aspects of the life of an informant, but it creates compelling characters and dramatic situations from a complex web of pain and regret, all while twisting and turning between a number of genres. Audiences looking for a traditional action movie may be disappointed by the movie's insistence on sampling a number of exciting situations without ever committing to one, but anyone looking for something different will likely find something to enjoy.
Don Lee (Nick Leung) is a detective whose investigations routinely rely on an insider to feed them information about the deals going down. As the film opens, one of the deals goes wrong, and Lee makes the decision to send his team in. Although Lee prevents the evidence from being destroyed, saving his case, his actions allow the target to identify the "stool pigeon" and deliver a non-fatal but nonetheless permanently damaging revenge. Over a year later, Lee is still distraught by the memory, but is forced to enlist the help of a recently released criminal named Ghost Jr. (Nicholas Tse) to try and nail a jewelry store thief named Barbarian (Yi Lu).
In terms of being a thriller, director Dante Lam has a remarkable grasp on the genre. The Stool Pigeon includes an illegal street race, a tailing sequence, a car chase that leads into a foot chase, a heist, and more. Lam gives each one a different feel within the movie, resulting in an unpredictable electricty lacking from so many other efforts. Although none of these sequences will stand among the all-time greats (nor will other familiar sequences, like a moment when the mob boss in charge of the robberies shows up at Ghost's door while Detective Lee is there), Lam stages each one with skill and swiftness, using shots that clearly and efficiently tell the audience all the crucial information without needing to explain every detail.
More importantly, Lam keeps a focus on the characters, turning what might've seemed melodramatic on the page into compelling drama. Lee isn't haunted just by his former informant's destroyed life (although he visits the man, now homeless and slightly deranged, to give him food), but his own actions following the incident. He spends an evening or two a week at a local dance studio, and, like the action sequences, Lam reveals Lee's story at a deliberate pace, with faith the audience will slowly understand rather than spelling out each detail. His efforts are supported by Leung, whose quiet, direct performance throughout the film really moves into another realm when cracks appear in his veneer. Without giving too much away, Lam and Lee slowly detail a remarkable web of mistakes, and the moment everything comes to a head will have the viewer reeling. Although parts of the situation rely on coincidence (some would say too much), Leung's performance is devastating.
At the same time, Ghost's predicament gets more and more complicated. His primary goal is to help his sister, who has turned to prostitution in order to help pay off an $800,000 debt his father left behind. Worse, in addition to being an informant, he becomes infatuated with Barbarian's girlfriend Dee (Lunmei Kwai), who he is assigned to drive around. Once again, these elements are classic and even tired genre staples, but it's the performances by both that bring them to life. Dee is in a dying relationship with Barbarian (he tells her to get an abortion via text message), and she and Ghost met once before, at just the right moment. Their chemistry is interesting: he likes her, but doesn't want to involve her with or screw up his informant deal, while she's actively looking for a way out of a relationship she knows is doomed, and finds Ghost's occasional recklessness attractive. The aforementioned car chase isn't just a setpiece; it's a bizarre expression of his interest in her, and her interest in him. Lam's best trick, however, is the way he makes their relationship important without leaning on it, allowing the central plot to remain the driving force, bringing up their bond only when the story allows.
The Video and Audio
This 2.35:1, 1080p MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer always appears to accurately reflect the director's intentions. Although the color in a scene is often uniform in a way that suggests digital color tweaking (sickly greens and cold blues), the image is incredibly detailed, with a nice layer of filmic grain on top. In darker scenes, skintones sometimes start to move towards oranges and yellows instead of more natural browns. Shadow detail created by slightly cranked contrast wavers between obliterating detail and looking natural. I also may have detected one or two harsh digital edges. That said, none of these things really detract from the viewing experience.
A Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track packs quite a punch. When the score really rises up or some sort of action begins, the track is energized, with thunderous gunshots and a bassy rumble. At other times, the mix is entirely naturalistic, recapturing the ambient atmosphere of back alleys and cramped, low-rent apartment complexes. Dialogue is never less than impeccable, and although the film is often switches between explosive and minimal, the balance is good (I never felt the need to reach for the remote to turn it up or down). Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0, English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and English Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are also included.
Behind the Scenes (46:38) is pure fly-on-the-wall B-roll footage, showing the shooting of several scenes without comment. Highlights include the shaving of Tse's head (he jokingly asks Lam if the mohawk look is okay, to which someone replies "Taxi Driver!"), and the planning of a chase sequence using toy cars. Deleted scenes (11:10) are next. The first is the most interesting, revealing the rest of a scene shown in snippets in the movie, where Lee goes to visit his doomed informant; the scene heaps a touch more tragedy on an already tragic situation. Other scenes include a short conversation between Ghost and his sister, a slightly longer scene between Ghost and Lee that calls back to the first deleted scene, a flashback of Lee in the hospital after the failed bust, and finally a scene that may be a slightly less bleak replacement for one in the movie, but is probably just an additional scene meant to go in earlier. Finally, Making Of (15:13) is a traditional EPK-style featurette, but there's a major oversight: none of the participants are identified in English.
Trailers for Shaolin, Little Big Soldier, The King of Fighters, and Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen play before the main menu. Two international trailers for The Stool Pigeon are also included.
Although The Stool Pigeon may read like a movie the viewer has seen countless times already, Lam weaves his directorial skills, compelling writing, and two powerhouse performances around the more familiar elements, elevating it beyond crime thrillers that only operate on the surface. The Blu-Ray looks and sounds excellent, and the bonus features are a pleasant addition, even if the film is the real attraction. Recommended.
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