REVIEW: “Infernal Affairs”

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Back in 2006 Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” grabbed a lot of attention. It received universal acclaim and would go on to win four Oscars including Best Picture. For many it also brought attention to the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama “Infernal Affairs” – the direct inspiration for Scorsese’s “The Departed”. Scorsese would later say “Infernal Affairs” was an example of why he loved Hong Kong cinema.

“Infernal Affairs” was a critical and box office hit when first released winning seven of its sixteen Hong Kong Film Awards nominations. Over time it has gained a global appreciation and has influenced a number of prominent filmmakers. Much of its impact is due to a riveting script featuring two rich, intersecting storylines and a near flawless pacing. Once it starts it keeps you locked in for the duration.

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Following the same timeline a young police cadet is sent to infiltrate a local triad while a young gang member is sent to infiltrate the Hong Kong police department. Ten years pass and both men climb the ranks to higher and more trusted positions. Chen (Tony Leung) is a top dog to triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang) but has grown tired of undercover cop life. Lau (Andy Lau) has become Sam’s top insider within the police department. As both feed more information to their bosses it becomes evident to each they have a mole that needs exterminated.

What follows is a tense game of cat-and-mouse as one tries to root out the other. The Alan Mak and Felix Chong screenplay impressively weaves together its two narrative threads while steadily building towards its inevitable explosive conclusion. And while action is a component of their story, Mak and Chong are much more interested in moral dilemmas and inner conflicts. They deal personally with themes of identity, loyalty, and suffering – specifically a continued state of suffering.

You could say suffering is the main theme. The film begins and ends with two Buddhist verses which speak of a “continuous hell” and the actual Chinese movie title is translated “The Unceasing Path”. Chen and Lau are trapped in their own unending personal hells with no discernible escapes. It’s a concept the movie explores to great effect and all within a riveting, tightly-wound crime thriller.

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The casting of charismatic leads Tony Leung and Andy Lau energizes the movie even more. Both give focused, understated performances that earned them critical acclaim. But that’s no surprise. By that time both actors were immensely popular and have since been established as two of Hong Kong’s most successful and bankable movie stars. They have very little screentime together but the scenes they do eventually share serves as a most satisfying payoff.

“Infernal Affairs” is recognized by many as one of the signature Hong Kong movies of its era. It’s easy to see why. It features a highly original crime/police story brimming with drama and tension. The small bursts of action we get are thrilling and the film is shot with an impeccable attention to tone. But the characters are the story’s lifeblood and everything the movie puts around them reveals more of the struggle within them. It’s an unexpected ingredient that separates the movie from the bulk of action movie fodder.

VERDICT 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

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16 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Infernal Affairs”

  1. I’ve always meant to watch this after I learned The Departed was somewhat of a remake, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s in my Netflix queue. Great review!

    • It is soooo good. You can tell Scorsese has a deep affection for the movie. In many ways this is a better film. So incredibly well made top to bottom.

  2. Just some lean & mean filmmaking at its finest. Having seen this first, THE DEPARTED was a bit of a let down for me; just too bloated and a little heavy-handed for my taste. I mean, that last scene with the rat on the roof emblematic of that. This is the film that I want to re-watch…along with GOODFELLAS and especially CASINO. Way to have a great start to this series, Keith.

    • Thanks so much. I think you nailed it – “lean & mean filmmaking at its finest”. That’s so accurate. I too think this is a better film than The Departed. I like Scorsese’s picture but just a few too many extra twists and as you said…that rat decision. A bit much for me too.

  3. I really look forward to getting into this. It should be on MY Blindspot list as well, truth be told. Out of curiosity, how would you score The Departed?

    • Probably a good solid 4. Not far from a 4.5 I do like Infernal Affairs a touch better. As your watching there is no doubt that Scorsese was a huge fan of Lau’s film.

  4. Them Kung fu pictures was popular about 40 year ago. I ain’t got nothing again em now, but they just ain’t as good anymore since that Bruce Lee fella perished.

    • The great thing is both versions are really good movies. I do think I prefer this one though. Such a fantastic script and I love the two lead performances.

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