SIFF 2011: THE STOOL PIGEON (2010) Review

The problem with Hong Kong director Dante Lam's new crime film The Stool Pigeon isn't that it's a bad movie but instead that it's depressingly only half a good movie. That half follows recently-released criminal thief and illegal street racer Ghost Jr. (Nicholas Tse), who turns informer against a gang of thieves in order to earn the money necessary to buy his sister's freedom from prostitution. This half--honestly, more of a third but I'm being generous--is honest, pulpy stuff with clear stakes, a character in more or less plausible circumstances stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Ghost Jr. isn't an especially deep character, and we more or less know where the story will take him: that he'll be attracted to the pretty lookout Dee (Lunmei Kwai) and that the feeling will be mostly mutual, and that between her and the cops, Ghost Jr. will find himself in over his head. There's something to be said for taking basic material and simply writing it honestly and well, with an understanding of a script's characters that is clearly articulated to the viewer.

However, this is not the case with the other half of the movie which deals with Police Inspector Don Lee (Nick Cheung), who drafts Ghost Jr. into becoming an informer in spite of his own reservations about endangering another snitch. The opening of the movie shows us an operation gone wrong with Jabber, another informer who is nearly hacked to death after the criminals he exposed track him down and decide to teach him a lesson. Wracked with guilt from this as well as the incredibly ridiculous circumstances of his own personal life, Don nonetheless does what he can to get Ghost Jr. to help him take down the gang.

Don's story starts off promisingly as a police procedural, but then morphs into the most dire, wrong-headed kind of melodrama, complete with uncontrollable weeping, hysterical mental illness, and syrupy love songs. We learn a couple of things about the serious, incredibly straight-laced Don as the movie progresses, but they fail to illuminate him in the context of the story in which he inhabits. The losses that he suffers outside of the job are so contrived, pulled so thoroughly from the "bigger emotions are better" playbook, that they effectively derail much of The Stool Pigeon's third act in an orgy of unearned tears and drama. In particular, there is a revelation about his wife that we learn which is so dumb (there's no better word for it) that you would suspect it was pulled from a script parodying this kind of silliness.

There are a couple of well-staged and tense action sequences peppered throughout the film--in particular a car chase through the city streets which ends in a more realistic way than many film car chases do, then becomes a pretty interesting foot chase through a market that works in spite of not really answering how the characters are finally able to make their escape. Again, these scenes are part of a much more interesting movie that has a recognizable shape and would be easy to recommend were it not grafted onto the terrible other half which should be avoided like the plague.

The Stool Pigeon is screening as part of the 37th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. For more details about the festival and screenings, please check out SIFF site.

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