A memo to Hong Kong director Dante Lam: Write more scripts. Through the bulk of his career Lam has been a designated second stringer - a reliable but unspectacular director who can be counted on by studios to bring projects in on time and on budget with a minimum of fuss and bother, to generally positive but unspectacular reviews. This is no longer the case. With The Beast Stalker - a film Lam co-wrote himself for just the second writing credit of his career, according to the IMDB - Lam is now officially a member of the Hong Kong elite.
A lean and taut police thriller in the classic Hong Kong style, titular beast stalker is played by Nicolas Tse as a rigidly perfectionist cop (Fei) devastated when a stray bullet from his gun slays a young girl. He gets his man - a dangerous crime lord - in the shoot out, yes, but is haunted by grief and shame at the tragedy and is never the same, his cold efficiency replaced by mourning and the deep-seated urge to help the mother of the dead girl - a divorced, high profile public prosecutor - take care of her surviving daughter. His help, of course, is not at all wanted.
The beast to be stalked? That would be Nick Cheung as Hung, a professional hitman and kidnap artist hired by the previously captured crime lord to ensure that his case never goes to trial by kidnapping the prosecutor's young daughter and using the child for leverage. The prosecutor, of course - in an only-in-Hong Kong twist - is the mother of the girl killed by Fei at the outset and whether she wants his help or not, her only hope of getting her lone surviving child back alive is to allow Fei to put his own life on the line and go outside the boundaries of the law to track and capture her captor.
Thick with tension and melodrama, The Beast Stalker embodies all of the elements of classic Hong Kong cinema. You've got your hard boiled rogue cop, your vicious but strangely empathetic villain, your layers upon layers of intrigue and coincidences contrived to ramp the melodrama up to extreme heights. In the wrong hands these elements come off as tired and cliche but in the right hands it shows why classic Hong Kong became classic in the first place and the Lam / Tse / Cheung combination is note perfect.
Lam deserves enormous praise at the outset for his efficient script, the immediately engaging story and firm grasp on both action and mood. The Beast Stalker is a clinical example of how to build and release tension to keep your audience on edge, a film that gives you deeply believable characters despite the on-the-edge premise and manages to shock without ever stretching credibility. The technical end of the film is superb and that is all, one hundred percent down to Lam and his skilled crew.
And all of that technical skills exists here purely to highlight the ongoing cat-and-mouse game played out by Tse and Cheung, Hong Kong's current go-to leading man and one of its most consistent character players proving to be perfectly matched throughout. Tse captures the nuances of his character remarkably well, proving once again that his pretty-boy days are well and truly behind him, while Cheung delivers a powerhouse, charismatic performance in the villain role - a role that should have Hong Kong's leading directors and casting agents lining up for his services for years to come.
The Beast Stalker was a film that was easy to miss as it went through production. A new film from Dante Lam does not exactly draw huge notice, particularly not one built on story elements as familiar as these are. But the finished product here is truly remarkable, a film that fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the leading Hong Kong thrillers of the past ten years.