Infernal Affairs is a member of the elitist ‘Haven’t you seen the original?’ club. This 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller was remade by Martin Scorsese and his A-list chums as The Departed four years later. It bagged the bespeckled director an Oscar for Best ‘Shit, We Haven’t Given Him One Yet’ Picture and garnered both critical praise and public approval for its convoluted depiction of Boston crime politics.
Meanwhile, Asian cinema devotees spluttered in the corner, declaiming the Hollywood rip-off as a worthless bastardisation of a modern classic.
Playing Top Trumps with police flicks isn’t the point of this review, but there’s an elephant in the room who keeps nudging me with his trunk, stamping his feet impatiently and eyeing a copy of each film. It seems best to feed the beast some definitive peanuts before we really get going, so we can put to bed both the dilemma and this bloated metaphor.
The best film is: a matter of opinion. The difference between them is marginal and too close to call objectively. Whichever you prefer will come down to cinematic preferences or, most likely, which one you saw first.
Infernal Affairs is a snappier picture with a more cohesive and coherent story, while The Departed features stronger acting and polished direction. And that, is that.
The duelling lead rolls in Infernal Affairs are filled by Chinese mega-star, Andy Lau, and experienced Hong Kong grafter, Tony Leung. The former is a police inspector and informant for Triad boss, Sam, while the latter plays his opposite, a police mole who has wheedled his way into the upper echelon of Sam’s gang.
It’s a really fantastic premise that forces two men bound by deceit to spiral inexorably towards each other. The film asks profound questions about morality. Can a person, so mired in corruption, turn his life into something positive, and will a man necessarily become evil in trying to do good?
The film undermines this conundrum a little by making it perfectly clear that you should root for Chen Wing Yan, the police mole. Leung’s performance is so doe-eyed that you can’t help but sympathise with his predicament. Even when he’s charming the Ph.D. off his psychiatrist, there’s a naivety to his expression that is extremely endearing.
Lau, on the other hand, is more of a schemer. A cold calculated professional who is conflicted, but values self-preservation over all else. That is the crux of their endearment. Yang will sacrifice himself for justice and his own beliefs, while Inspector Lau isn’t even sure what his beliefs are.
Regardless, both leads put in excellent performances, bringing the full force of their experience to bear on two complete and engrossing creations. Many films can’t even manage one interesting character, so it seems almost unfair that Infernal Affairs gets two. The supporting cast are noticeably poorer by comparison. There are no standout duds, but the raft of bit part players seem buffeted by the wake of Leung and Lau passing through. Many of these actors get their chance to shine or flop in the two sequels.
Speaking of which, how would you like to see the continuation of Infernal Affairs‘ gripping narrative in a second instalment? Well, you’ll have to wait for number III, because Infernal Affairs II is a prequel. Lau and Leung are conspicuous by their absence, replaced by Edison Chen and Shawn Yue, respectively. These two young actors played the policemen in flashback scenes during the first film and return to pick up the roles fulltime.
The law of diminishing returns in movie sequels, coupled with the absence of the best two things about Infernal Affairs, may give you justifiable cause for concern, but directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak are one step ahead.
To avoid leaning on their rookie charges too greatly, Infernal Affairs II is as much about mob boss Sam (Eric Tsang) and his cop counterpart, Inspector Wong Chi Sing (Anthony Wong), who featured in the first film as mentor and handler to Chen, as it is the origin story of Yan and Ming.
While the young bucks testosterone their way around the streets of Hong Kong, we gain insight into the burgeoning relationship between a low evel mob boss and an up and coming police inspector. Given each other to bounce off, the bubbly Sam and cynical Wong are dramatically improved from the first film. Learning more of what lead to the prickly pivotal scene they share in Infernal Affairs is as intriguing as Ming and Yan’s evolution.
The four major players are strung together by Triad tensions in the city, with crisp mob doyen, Ngai Wing Hau (Francis Ng), playing his underlings off against each other in a dangerous power gambit. It’s not nearly as gripping as the plot that preceded it, suffering from a surfeit of names and places that can become difficult to follow.
Still, Chen and Yue convert their inexperience into rawness and the two director’s benefit from having mastered their tone in the first film. Predictably, it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but Infernal Affairs II is still an exciting thriller with plenty for fans of the original to enjoy.
Last and least is Infernal Affairs III, which marks the semi-triumphant return of Andy Lau and Tony Leung. To squeeze in enough screentime for both characters, the film flashes wildly between time periods. If that weren’t hard enough to follow, the action slips without warning into delusional psychotic episodes, as Inspector Ming’s sanity unravels.
It’s admirable that writer’s Alan Mak & Felix Chong chose to take this third outing in such a different direction. Gone is the grand intrigue of criminal politics and in come the very personal stories of two men, one beginning his suffering and the other bringing his to a close.
Daoming Chen arrives as new antagonist, Inspector Shen Chen, who Lau suspects is another informant. His knowing smirk seems pantomime in the early going, but as Lau becomes increasingly irrational and erratic, Chen’s bearing begins to mesh with the tone.
Kelly Chen gets her turn in the limelight as Yan’s former psychiatrist, but puts in undoubtedly the weakest performance of the entire trilogy. Her prominence, coupled with a story that is interesting, but not enthralling, conspire to make Infernal Affairs III a little worse than II, and a noticeable step down from I.
Unless you’re a major fan, there’s no real reason to plump for these Blu-rays over your existing DVDs. The transfers are perfectly fine, but don’t have enough sharpness to warrant an HD upgrade.
The extras are limited to short ‘making of’ docs and a few other behind-the-scenes snippets. The first film features a commentary with both directors.
It’s fair to say that there are no bad films in this trio, which seems like an almost impossible success for a series completed in under two years.
Whether you’re curious about the origins of the Hollywood remake or a devoted Hong Kong cineaste, immersing yourself in the Infernal Affairs trilogy is a very worthwhile way to spend sixhours of your life.
Infernal Affairs: The Complete Trilogy is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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