Nightfall is what you call quality genre film making. It's a film that raises clichés to an artform. There are no surprises, no deviations from the norm, but the execution is simply flawless. Amidst an endless list of competing police thrillers Nightfall still knows to differentiate itself from the others, combining extremely stylish setups with some exciting police work. If you're craving quality filler to bridge the time between two of To's crime thrillers, Nightfall is the film you're looking for.
Police thrillers are still very popular in Hong Kong. You have the more action-oriented varieties (think Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience) or the quirkier ones (think Johnnie To's Mad Detective), but in the end it's always about a detective trying to catch a criminal. Nightfall is a pretty straight-forward example of the genre. It does little to set itself apart from its peers, except making sure that it does everything with the proper sense of style.
The story, as if quite often the case in these types of films, isn't all that straight-forward. The setup is simple enough though. Wong is released from prison after a 20-year long sentence. It seems he's quickly slipping back into his old habits as he begins to stalk the single daughter of a famous classical musician (Han Tsui). Not soon after Han if found dead in the ocean, mutilated beyond recognition with Wong as the prime and only suspect in the case.
There there is Lam, a beat down police detective. When his wife committed suicide 5 years earlier Lam took up drinking to ease his pain, forsaking his police career. The only thing Lam is famous for is reopening old cases, so when he is assigned the case of the Han murder Lam digs into the past of both Han and Wong and finds some very interesting connections. The closer Lam gets to Wong, the more he's starting to doubt Wong's actual involvement in Han's killing.
The film relies heavily on its impeccable sense of style to pull you through the more generic moments. Sure enough many scenes and even plot twists are familiar territory for fans of the genre, but looking at the exquisite imagery that Roy lays before us it's definitely worth the effort. Everything from framing and camera work to color use and editing, the film simply impresses on all visual levels. Except for maybe two (completely unnecessary) CG shots, but that is almost a cliché in itself. Just a little nitpick on what is definitely one of the best-looking Hong Kong films I've ever seen.
The music is equally grand. It's essentially a clever mix of film music with some classical influences, but it works wonders when coupled with the visuals. The combination of both music and visuals lift the film to a higher plane, somehow convincing you that you're not just watching the umpteenth generic Hong Kong police thriller. It's not a very original score, but style trumps originality here and the result is superb.
The acting is another highlight of Nightfall. It's good to see that Simon Yam is still on top of his game, I would even go as far as to say he gets better with age. I imagine he can play a role like this with his eyes closed by now, but having him around is still a real boost for a director. More surprising is the excellent performance of Nick Cheung, one of the better roles of his career no doubt. Cheung wasn't always able to convince me in the past, but here he is both terribly enigmatic and mysterious. The rest of the cast is solid too (even Michael Wong couldn't annoy me much), but the film is really all about Yam and Cheung's showdown.
In the second half you can expect a string of twists and revelations shedding new light on Lam's case. By now this should be nothing out of the ordinary. There are no earth-shattering twists and you won't be blown away by the actual conclusion. It's just another genre cliché. If you're partial to these things though the conclusion might be a small disappointment as the attentive viewer probably sees it coming from miles away. Then again, when was the last time you were shocked by a film's final twist?
If you're familiar with the genre, don't expect any surprises. Roy remains faithful to the rules of the game but transcends its limitations with a superb visual flair and two charismatic main actors. It's not quite up there with the best as Roy lacks original input, but as far as genre cinema goes it offers exactly what I expect from a film like this.