SIFF 2011: THE STOOL PIGEON (2010) Review

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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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ToryMay 30, 2011 8:22 PM

I could not agree with you more. The movie would have been MUCH better had it just followed Tse. Wasn't really into Cheung's side of things. I remember being really into the movie during and just after the car chase, but it then it lost me. Don should have stayed to the side and they should have stuck with Ghost Jr. to tell a simple story.

Charles WebbMay 30, 2011 9:14 PM

I wouldn't have had such a problem with the structure being split between the two characters if Don's story wasn't stubbornly just an entirely different movie with a wildly different (and silly) tone.

ToryMay 30, 2011 10:25 PM

They probably could have made a good movie while keeping it split it between the two, yeah. But as is, he's just not an interesting character. Spot on about him being from another movie.

methosbJune 1, 2011 8:02 AM

The problem is the same problem with all HK movies now. The producers think they must cover ever base, every character must have a love story etc etc if they want ppl to see it in HK. The sad thing is that it is true, people only go to the movies here to watch celebrities and hence want to see them all get their screen time and want to see them in some cheesy romantic situation.

This movie was such a disappointment not because it is bad, but because it would have been finally a decent movie after hundreds of rubbish HK movies if it had not had that pointless cheesy love story.