Infernal Affairs Review
Ten years ago in Hong Kong, two young men from different backgrounds were persuaded to become spies. Chan (Tony Leung), the most promising police cadet in his class was asked by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), head of the city's anti-drug task force to drop out of the academy, pose as a criminal and work his way inside the Triads. At the same time, gang boss Sam (Eric Tsang) gathered the cleverest and the most loyal of his younger employees and ordered them to sign up as cops. Among them was Lau (Andy Lau).
Both men succeeded beyond all expectations. Lau has infiltrated Superintendent Wong's drugs squad, which is keeping tabs on his employer while Chan has become Sam's most trusted henchman. Neither is altogether happy with his situation. Chan has been kept undercover for three times as long as he originally agreed. Aside from the constant fear of exposure and death, he's sacrificed his chance at a normal life and a family, all out of duty to a society which thinks he's a common criminal. His one wish is to have his identity back. Lau on the other hand has come to enjoy the trappings of a respectable career as a detective. He has money, a nice apartment, a beautiful, loving girlfriend and colleagues who admire him. Poisoning it all is the awareness that he's living a lie, one which could fall apart at any moment.
Infernal Affairs isn't a Hong Kong action movie. There's no martial arts or John Woo-style gunplay. In fact, despite the subject matter, there's very little violence in this film and what there is makes you wince rather than clutch the armrest with excitement. This is an intelligent, grown-up crime thriller which is less interested in the details of crime than in the inner workings of its characters, their moral choices and how they live with them. It inspires comparisons to Michael Mann's Heat and William Friedkin's The French Connection and To Live And Die In L.A. and it deserves them. There are some thrilling sequences, but they're built out of old-fashioned suspense rather than action choreography. The best of these set-pieces, a drug exchange early on in the film, wouldn't look out of place in the best work of Mann or Friedkin.
One theme which does have its roots in Hong Kong shoot-em-ups, particularly the films of John Woo, is the relationship of cop and criminal, hero and villain. In films like The Killer and Face/Off, Woo's portrayed them as two sides of the same coin. Infernal Affairs' co-directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak take that conceit even further by making their central protagonist not Chan, the noble undercover cop but Lau, the gangsters' mole. Inspector Chan is very much a supporting character. Lau is no romanticised anti-hero either, like Chow Yun-Fat was in The Killer. Though he's not without morals and would like to be a better person, he remains a scheming opportunist who can't rise above his nature. You can never really like him although, thanks to an excellent performance by Andy Lau, you can't help empathising with him.
While Tony Leung has the secondary role, he portrays Chan memorably as a decent, desperately unhappy man who hates his job but feels unable to walk away. There are also strong supporting parts for Anthony Wong and Eric Tsang as, respectively, the superintendent and Triad boss. Their police station confrontation is a cracking scene. As Lau's girlfriend, Sammi Cheng creates a terrific character in a limited amount of screen time, while Man-chat To makes a funny and very human gangster. If you were under the impression that acting wasn't one of Hong Kong cinema's strengths, this is the film to change your mind. The cinematography and production values are also top-notch and not far off Hollywood standard. The only real flaws are a rushed, slightly confusing opening montage and the occasionally bizarre translation of the subtitles, which appear to have been written by someone who's learned English by listening to Snoop Dogg ("I was just shopping in the hood", one character announces).
Infernal Affairs has been a huge hit in Asia and has won a lot of awards. In what's becoming a tradition in the Far East, it's already inspired a prequel (Infernal Affairs II) and a sequel (Infernal Affairs III). Also, unsurprisingly, a Hollywood remake is planned. Don't feel obliged to wait for it. This is a gripping and thoroughly commercial thriller that should appeal to anyone who likes a damn good cop movie.