2008 has been a rather underwhelming year for Hong Kong Cinema, which is why it's great to see The Beast Stalker. Director Dante Lam's action thriller isn't a special film, but it's solidly entertaining, possessing of action, suspense, appropriate emotions and some well-drawn characters. Nicholas Tse leads the cast as Sergeant Tong, a super-serious cop whose stern demeanor edges dangerously close to overacting. In the film's opening action sequence, he engages in a car chase with evil bastard Cheung Yat-Tung (Keung Ho-Man), but the pursuit ends in a spectacular slow-motion smash-em-up involving four vehicles and multiple individuals, all whose lives change in seconds. Dazed from the crash, Tong is still able to stop Cheung's getaway by firing after their escaping vehicle. However, he unwittingly shoots a young girl (Wong Sum-Yin), who later dies from the bullet wounds.
Flash forward some months and Cheung is about to be indicted for his part in an armed robbery that led to the getaway and the massive car crash. Note: convoluted character connections, ahoy! Prosecuting Cheung is barrister Ann Gao (Zhang Jingchu), a divorced mother of twins, one of whom was the girl that was accidentally shot and killed by Tong. During the ensuing months, Tong has befriended the remaining twin, Ling (Wong Suet-Yin), and is still racked with guilt over his hand in the death of Ling's sister. However, Ling is dragged into the mess when she's kidnapped by Hung (Nick Cheung), who was hired by Cheung to extort Ann into destroying the crucial evidence linking Cheung to his crime. Hung does Cheung's bidding in a professional fashion, and fearing the loss of her remaining daughter, Ann is adamant about not informing the police. However, Tong witnessed the kidnapping and is already on the case, and will stop at nothing to make sure that Ling is safe from harm.
The Beast Stalker is a standard genre picture, with a plot that's been seen before and characters that are only extensions of basic types. However, writers Dante Lam and Jack Ng manage to sneak in some decent character moments, making each of their characters more deeply felt. Tong's relentless do-gooder attitude makes him an effective cop, but he's humbled by the physical and emotional damage left in his wake. Hung is an efficient and ruthless criminal who's motivated by his love for his invalid wife (Miao Pu, whose Cantonese voice is dubbed by Nick Cheung's wife, Esther Kwan), but he also develops a sliver of affection for his young hostage Ling, a detail that sounds pandering but is actually handled quite effectively. Of the three main characters, Ann Gao probably is the least developed, though Zhang Jingchu inhabits the role well. Even the minor characters, including Liu Kai Chi's cop and Miao Pu's ailing wife, are given small moments that make them stand out. There's a decently-developed and felt humanity to this gritty cops-and-kidnappers thriller.
Director and co-writer Dante Lam doesn't even come close to matching his best genre work (that would be 1998's Beast Cops), but his execution here is worth nothing. The Beast Stalkers has a suitably gritty feel, with the handheld camera and overexposed lighting helping to create the film's grainy, wannabe realistic look. The action sequences employ bombastic music cues and an abundance of audience polarizing shaky-cam, but they're kinetic and tense, and the actors throw themselves into them with an appreciable physicality. Tung Wai's action choreography delivers solid impact, and Bruce Law's car chases are also exciting. Where the film surprises is in its ability to play with standard audience expectation. Any educated audience knows that certain things should or should not happen during the course of a commercial film, but The Beast Stalker effectively creates the illusion that those expectations may actually be subverted. There's tension and even fear in how Lam assembles his elements, and even when the film resorts to cliché (e.g., when knocked down, the bad guy always gets up), he creates the emotional tension required to keep the audience involved.
The actors help, though there are a few debits. Nicholas Tse has aged well, his youthful righteousness maturing into a more explosive adult anger. There are moments where he seemingly does go too far; at one key moment, he gets so weepy that he seems to be channeling Aaron Kwok's performance in Divergence. However, his acting isn't showy, and still works due to its lack of self-consciousness. Basically, Tse overacts, but he does so convincingly. Nick Cheung shows once again that he may be better when playing darker characters, giving his villain role suitable menace and also multiple levels that make his character plausible enough to be sympathetic. The Beast Stalker does falter a bit in how it ties its characters together; multiple flashbacks reveal how everyone is connected, but its questionable if those details actually make the film better. At least they don't make the film pretentious, which may be The Beast Stalker's greatest achievement of all. The film is tense and emotional, and sometimes dips precariously into melodrama, but in the end it's not trying to be a great film. It's merely a well-made, solid and satisfying movie, and that's precisely what Hong Kong Cinema needs right now. (Kozo 2008)