Infernal Affairs by Andrew Lau (Review)

Infernal Affairs is the sort of slick, intelligent movie that any director would love to have under his belt.
Infernal Affairs - Andrew Lau

It should really come as no surprise that a Hollywood company snapped up the remake rights to Infernal Affairs earlier this year. With an intriguing plot, solid acting, and smart production values, Infernal Affairs is the sort of slick, intelligent movie that any director would love to have under his belt. And it’s the sort of movie that audiences love to see, one whose sense of style and aesthetics doesn’t insult their intelligence. Frankly put, if Hollywood ever does produce a domestic remake, they’ll have to work really hard to screw it up, because Infernal Affairs is nearly perfect as it is.

Yan (Tony Leung) was drummed out of the police academy 10 years ago, but that was all a ploy to let him slip into the Triads as an undercover cop. At the same time, Ming (Andy Lau) was a rising star in the academy, eventually becoming one of the department’s best cops. However, Ming is working undercover as well. He was placed in the academy by Sam (Eric Tsang), a ruthless gangster, as part of a plan to infiltrate the police department and undermine their efforts. Meanwhile, Yan is now a member of Sam’s gang and reports back to Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong) on their activities.

After the police bust one of Sam’s drug deals, both sides reveal they have a mole in the other’s ranks. Yan and Ming are charged by their “bosses” with ferreting out the informer, not realizing that they’re hot on each other’s trail. This is not an easy task to begin with, and it’s complicated by the fact that both men have lived double lives for so long that they’ve lost sight of their true identities.

When he’s not getting harassed and beaten up by cops, Yan lives in constant fear that the gangsters might discover his secret identity. He’s become emotionally unhinged and may or may not be a drug addict. Only Inspector Wong knows his true mission. He’s the only one who reminds Yan of who he truly is. Ming, on the other hand, has been on the side of law and order for so long that he’s developed a conscience. He finds himself growing troubled by Sam’s ruthlessness and finds it increasingly harder to give Sam information that will only increase the gangster’s power.

The two moles are caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse, always coming close to revealing the other’s identity but never close enough. The movie knows how to milk this for suspense. One sequence in particular revs up the nail-biting factor as Yan trails Ming through a movie theatre, almost discovering Ming’s betrayal before an ironic phone call fouls it up. The movie might move slowly in spots, but it’s only biding its time until it can throw out a plot twist that will leave your head spinning and completely change the rules for Yan and/or Ming.

Obviously, one of the movie’s biggest draws is the pairing of Tony Leung and Andy Lau. For my money, Leung’s one of the best actors working today. I have yet to be disappointed by his acting, even in movies that were basically fluff (such as Tokyo Raiders), and Infernal Affairs doesn’t break the string. Leung’s Yan is haggard and weary, a man who has lived as a criminal for so long he’s no longer sure if he’s good or bad. This is familiar territory for Leung. The first time I ever saw him was in John Woo’s Hard Boiled where he also played a disillusioned undercover cop. But this time around, he plumbs the darkness more deeply, delivering an outstanding performance.

But I have to admit the big surprise for me was Andy Lau (who is not related to the director, Andrew Lau). Lau’s never done much for me. In movies like Fulltime Killer and The Duel, he certainly looks cool but always comes off as a bit too smarmy and cocky for my taste. Not so with Infernal Affairs. Lau’s charm and charisma are undeniable, but he keeps them subtle and muted. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay him is that he constantly forces the viewer to reassess their opinion of Ming. At first, it’s easy to see him as a villain, but as the movie goes on, you’ll want to rethink that again and again.

Supporting Leung and Lau, Eric Tsang and Anthony Wong also deliver solid performances. Wong is especially great as the inspector who serves as Yan’s anchor. His role gives Leung the fuel necessary to make one of the movie’s most gutwrenching moments.

The film’s only misstep lies with the female characters. Normally, I’d never complain about seeing Kelly Chen in a movie, but her role, as Yan’s psychiatrist and possible love interest, feels completely gratuitous. And the same goes for Elva Hsiao and Sammi Cheng (who play Yan and Ming’s ex-girlfriends, respectively). No offense to any of the actresses, as they all do decent jobs with what little they were given, but their characters could’ve been dropped from the movie without hurting it one bit. Doing so would only serve to make Infernal Affairs more streamlined, which is hard to believe I admit.

Infernal Affairs is as lean as movies come, with virtually no fat or gratuitous filler. The story keeps things moving, perfectly balancing intricate character development with tense action sequences (and surprisingly little gunplay for an HK crime film). Andrew Lau’s directing here is lightyears beyond his work in The Stormriders and The Duel, and the cinematography is sharp and detailed. Danny Pang’s editing gives Infernal Affairs the same ultra-cool style that his own films (The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous) possess and Kwong Wing Chan’s music — which ranges from guitar-driven rock to ethnic-flavored drum n’ bass — keeps the film’s energy levels up.

Infernal Affairs goes down nice and smooth, and yet still has enough depth and substance to reward repeated viewings. When I watched this movie a second time, I caught many details I’d missed before. I suspect a third viewing will be just as fresh and energetic as the first two. It’s easy to see why many people feel that Infernal Affairs has pumped some much-needed energy into Hong Kong’s cinema. It’s a smart, exciting movie that hits the mark in nearly every possible way, starting with the acting of Leung and Lau and going on from there.

While I’m normally against remakes, Hollywood has a hot property on their hands with this one. With Brad Pitt’s name already attached, the remake would have plenty of buzz going for it. With a few minor tweaks, it could be a very successful film critically and financially. But if Hollywood drops the ball on this one, they’re even more incompetent and careless than I thought. Infernal Affairs is a topnotch film, and it deserves the best treatment possible.

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