Dante Lam has had something of a chequered career to date. Emerging as an up and coming director, he was singled out as one to keep an eye on. In the world of Hong Kong crime thrillers, within an era when John Woo and Ringo Lam (no relation) chose to vacate their native shores, a vacuum was created. It seemed to many an onlooker that with Lam's 1998 gritty crime drama Beast Cops (which he co directed with Gordon Chan), the Eastern gangster narrative might have found a suitable guardian. Unfortunately, what followed was a decade making films of questionable quality and in a variety of genres, none of which truly sat well with those desperate for a full blooded follow up to the aforementioned Beast Cops. Thus, after a fairly painful ten years of fans waiting to see if each new release would salve the pains of the last, he returns to familiar territory and a familiar name. The Beast Stalker is a gritty cop crime drama that looks to be very much in the mould of his breakout success. The key question is does it live up to its predecessor's high standards? Given the influence of Gordon Chan as co director as well as co-writer on Beast Cops, seeing Lam return with such a reminiscently named piece, but this time with him in sole possession of the director's chair and choosing to take on scripting duties alongside Wai Lun Ng, this could have proved a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Firstly, before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me clear something up, this is not a sequel to the previous Beast film. The use of the word in the title seems to be little more than a nice nod back to the past and nothing more. Perhaps this is the first film in ten years that Lam has felt appropriate to bestow the moniker upon or perhaps, as some more cynically minded have pondered, he simply wanted to remind us all of how he could handle the genre at his peak. Whichever way, it was playing with fire to place it in such esteemed company.
The Beast Stalker tells the story of a group of cops taking down a band of armed robbers. We enter the fray straight in at the deep end, as our motley cast of police officers are hot on the heels of their prey. Plain clothes are the order of the day, with ear pieces and the like being used to co-ordinate the plan of attack. Lam wastes no time in letting us know the dangers that lie behind any door for those seeking to take down their targets, as no sooner is a door smashed in than a gun is loudly discharged into someone's midriff. This could have set a tone for the rest of the piece but at the vital moment Lam pulls back and allows for an easier route for the audience. Guns are not the weapon of choice, as in many a Hong Kong piece - particularly those that fall within the category of “Heroic Bloodshed”, but they are used a couple of times. Instead, the preferred tools of violence are basically anything that comes to hand. Fists, rocks, bars and machetes are all wielded in anger. The fight choreography lends itself more to depicting scuffles and untidy set-tos rather than crisp and polished set-pieces. This not only fits in nicely with any wistful thoughts of Beast Cops but also gives a visceral feel to proceedings and an on-the-fly attitude to the protagonists akin to the Bourne films.
The meat of the drama comes from the aftermath of the opening pursuit, which leaves a criminal caught, many people hurt and one unfortunate little girl dead. The drive behind the film is very firmly placed upon the hero of sorts, Sergeant Tong. He is plagued by grief over the death of the young child and seems to have fallen into a malaise. Played by Nicholas Tse, the figure is perhaps the least interesting in the film, given that we are constantly forced to watch him looking into the ether or shedding tears. At times it feels like we are about to see him in a jazz bar drinking alone but luckily Lam avoids that cliché. This dark cloud hanging over his head is a fairly permanent fixture for the duration of the tale, but there are soon distractions and a possible route of redemption for him. Apparently, in a twist of fate that only a script writer could come up with, the deceased girl's mother is bizarrely prosecuting the case against the gang of criminals and despite her involvement with the matter is still allowed to proceed. The cons retaliate by taking her remaining daughter hostage and demanding that she destroys key evidence. Unable to call the police she keeps quiet, apparently planning on cooperating with their demands, until Tong throws himself into the middle of the situation, seeking to seize what he perceives as his possible chance to make amends.
So much of the middle act is caught up in intertwining stories of grief and acceptance, anger and reprisals that it borders on the plain melodramatic. Tse's lightweight presence at the centre of things doesn't help matters but luckily he is not alone. Bolstering the cast for the better are Zhang Jingchu as the kidnapped child's mother and Nick Cheung as the kidnapper himself. They help alleviate the perpetual emphasis on the tormented policeman and add a degree of dimensionality to characterization. They also allow for a faster pace as the introduction of several different figures, each with their own agenda and goals, makes for more brisk cuts between the locales and thus heightens the tension. For all the talk of cop thrillers and the like, this is in essence a chase movie. Whether it be Heat or the Bourne films, this type of drama hangs its hat on the ability of the director to draw out the scenes where the intended focus of the search is palpably within reach and also to create a genuine sense of fear for either the pursuer or the target, dependant upon who we are supposed to be rooting for. In this case Lam capably ticks the boxes for most of these criteria. The foot chases are twisting and gripping, with characters flying through market stalls and dashing behind corners. If anything, these are the moments that will make the viewer wish for the kidnapper to elude capture, if only to prolong the hunt.
This brings us to what is likely the main problem most will have with The Beast Stalker; its central character. In Sergeant Tong, Lam has created a man who appears a complete paradox. I am sure traumatic events shape lives, but to paint his early self as a hardnosed cop who would always be the first through the door, only to see him later constantly crying just appears odd. Harry Callahan didn't sketch whimsically in the park and Popeye Doyle didn't even break stride when he shot the wrong man. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Tse's depiction of Tong alongside such greats, but whether he is believable or indeed likeable is a major facet of the film. He lacks the gravitas to play the hard line policeman and left me wondering what the part would have been like if handled by an older actor with more presence such as Liu Kai Chi who here ably plays the sidekick role of Sun perfectly. Thankfully, once the story unfolds to the point of the kidnapping, half of our time seems to be spent with the ever dependable Nick Cheung. His nameless figure looms over the final act as he gets more and more desperate. He too has a tale to tell of hardship and the saving grace is that it is far more interesting than that of the central character. It is only at the very end, once the final credits should be rolling that we get a glimpse into the strands of destiny that have drawn all of the individuals to meet. Lam intersperses the mention of fate a couple of times but the meaning is kept close to his chest until the final reel, in a flashback that adds a lot to what we have seen and makes sense of some of the peculiarities of characterisations, particularly that of the kidnapper himself.
The Beast Stalker isn't the equal of Beast Cops, but it is actually a different animal in many ways (pun intended). It covers some of the same ground with the traditional police drama themes of partnership, culpability and duty, yet it moves into slightly different territory. The hostage angle adds an unease to situations that otherwise would be fairly pedestrian for the genre. A cop kicking a door in is hardly ground breaking and is unlikely to move a viewer to the edge of their seat. Once the caveat of a ruthless criminal likely to kill his captive is added to the mix, it becomes all the more potent. An air of tension permeates the chases, as not only are our pursuing heroes running the risk of physical danger to themselves, but if they fail the violent consequences may fall upon another. That the other in question is a child that we see bound and gagged for much of the film only makes it that much more nerve wracking and uncomfortable. Lam directs the chase, whether through the streets or tracking phones, with aplomb and the cinematography throws up some nicely framed highlights. The narrative may sag a little and the character of Tong won't likely have many hoping to see him return, but the peripheral cast and perilous game of cat and mouse more than make up for these shortcomings. Those nostalgic for the 90s era Hong Kong crime thrillers will no doubt be pleased to let it wash over them and enjoy the ride.
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