The latest Asian film to be remade by Hollywood, "Infernal Affairs" is a gripping and intriguing cop thriller that adds some originality to the good cop/bad cop routine.
"Infernal Affairs" follows the lives of two very different men, Inspector Lau (Andy Lau) and Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). Lau is the brightest cop in the precinct and over the last ten years has been promoted countless times, making him one of the premiere officers on the force. Yan, on the other hand, is a top henchman for one of Hong Kong's most dangerous drug dealers. However, in reality, Yan is an undercover cop known only to a few officials, and Lau is actually a mole for the mafia. When a drug bust goes awry, both sides suddenly realize that they have been infiltrated.
This interesting concept has probably been done before, but "Infernal Affairs" pays attention to details and provides plenty of tense moments, typically without much in the way of gunplay. In fact, the shootouts are the least exciting moments of the movie, whereas the simple scenes, such as one mole quietly pursuing the other in a movie theater, raise the film to another level. The story is not without flaws and definitely has some trouble tying up everything at the end, but the mere concept makes for a thrilling tale.
The two lead actors also help make the movie what it is, delivering simple yet powerful performances for characters that are not nearly so simple. What's great about "Infernal Affairs" but what also hurts the conclusion of the story is that there are no black-and-white characters. While it is easier to feel for Yan, the undercover cop who has spent ten years without anyone knowing his true identity, it's difficult not to feel for Lau, who, despite being a mole for the mafia wants to be good. He's getting married, moving into a new place and is successful in his career; he knows that his secrets can only hurt him.
As mentioned earlier, the ending is where the movie does stumble, if only a little bit. It's not what you would expect, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the ending gets a retooling for the Hollywood version. Regardless, my real complaint is that the film fails to adequately tie up several minor storylines that were built up over the last hour and a half. Namely, "Infernal Affairs" never really addresses the women in the story, even though it is clear that at some point the writer was interested in putting them to more use. An ex-girlfriend of Yan is introduced without much purpose, and Lau's wife is also put in a difficult situation - one that is also never resolved. Also, the movie uses a "six months later" transition at the end of the story, something I'm not a big fan of.
Another element that I didn't like about the movie was the direction. While the film looks fine for the most part, the director over-dramatized certain scenes and severely overused flashbacks, none of which were needed. The choice of music, especially at the end, seemed out of place for the genre, but it's the flashbacks that really hurt the look of the film, as they seem to suggest that the director doesn't think the audience can remember a scene that happened only an hour earlier. Whether the flashbacks were to remind the audience or for mere drama, they only take away from the overall presentation of the movie.
I am not a big fan of the recent trend to remake all things Asian (why can't the movies just be released with subtitles?), I must admit I'm looking forward to the Hollywood remake. "Infernal Affairs" is a good movie, but it is not a movie without flaws and a lot of room for improvement. With Martin Scorsese of all people directing, I'm pretty confident some of the holes can be filled in. I'd like to see a combination of "Heat" and "Collateral" (two Michael Mann films), something that handles both the action and character tension with equal respect. The cast, which includes Matt Damon, Leondardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson, should help bolster the remake, titled "The Departed."
Anyway, back to "Infernal Affairs..." It's an edgy, exciting and well-played movie, but it is far from perfect. Nevertheless, this is one of the best movies I've seen come out of China in a long time.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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