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
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.
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.