Crying out for a Stateside remake from its opening reel, stygian crimer “Beast Stalker” grips like a vise, and is unquestionably the finest Asian action-psychodrama since South Korea’s “The Chaser” last year. A major return to form by genre helmer Dante Lam, after his promising start a decade ago with pics like “Beast Cop” and “Jiang Hu — The Triad Zone,” this drama about a traumatized cop hunting down a child kidnapper to exorcise his own demons may have some Western theatrical potential as well as beastly upside on ancillary. Local haul late last year was a satisfying HK$8 million ($1 million).
While Lam’s tight, claustrophobic direction finds a balance between pure action and character development, equal kudos are due scripter Jack Ng (who wrote the classic Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung starrer “SPL,” plus several earlier Lam items like “Hit Team”). Dense, Swiss-clock-like screenplay, with overlapping patterns of guilt and fractured friendships, pulls several satisfying surprises on its audience right up to a final “oh, wow!” revelation that finally closes the plot circle.
Heading the strong cast is Nicholas Tse, downplaying his usual matinee-idol cool as Tong Fei, the young blowhard leader of a bunch of cops. Tong bawls out a colleague (Kwong Jing-hung) for screwing up a gambling bust that almost causes the death of another cop, Sun (Liu Kai-chi) — a snafu that triggers the main story, as Tong and Sun, while chatting afterward, happen to spot a car carrying triad boss Cheung Yat-tung (Keung Ho-man), who has been rescued by his buddies en route to a court hearing for armed robbery.
Brief but electrically staged car chase ends in a tragedy that involves Cheung’s prosecuting attorney, Ann Gao (mainland actress Zhang Jingchu), and sets up the guilt that drives Tong throughout the rest of the movie.
Three months later, Tong is on leave to settle his personal problems and becomes attached to Gao’s young daughter, Ling-ling (Wong Suet-yin). When Ling-ling is kidnapped by killer-for-hire Hung King (Nick Cheung), Tong goes on a personal mission to save the kid, whom Cheung is using to force Gao to compromise some conclusive evidence against him.
Early in this section,the film starts playing with the audience’s perceptions by including an unannounced flashback that seems to be taking place in the present. But such tricks serve to keep the tension ramped up rather than willfully confuse the viewer, and the complex web of relationships among cops, criminals, Gao and even Hung are cleverly resolved, right up to the final frame, as the action unfolds.
The plot does rely on some unlikely coincidences, but the leaps of imagination refreshingly recall a more devil-may-care era of Hong Kong production in which auds were expected to just go for the cinematic ride. As the pursuit of Hung starts in earnest — much of it set within a geographically small area of the city — the tension hardly lets up. Finale doesn’t quite manage to cap the preceding setpieces, but the surprise coda does.
Tse, often a variable young star, is impressive here and has good buddy chemistry with Liu throughout. But it’s Cheung, one of the territory’s most underrated actors, who’s the standout, turning a repellent, one-eyed killer into almost a figure of sympathy. Zhang, so good in mainland movies like “The Road,” as well as Hong Kong drama “Protege,” is OK here as the equally guilt-plagued attorney.
Action staging by Tung Wai, rhythmic-atmospheric score by Henry Lai and some tenebrous lensing keep the drama tight and ticking over.