Infernal Affairs , directed by Lau Wai Keung and Mak Siu Fai, written by Mak and Felix Chong, produced by Andy Lau, with Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong and Sammi Cheng. 101 minutes. A Basic Pictures Production. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (November 26) at the Royal. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Winner of seven Hong Kong film awards including best picture, Infernal Affairs gets a commercial release almost two years after its Asian premiere. You can thank Martin Scorsese, who sparked interest when he announced plans to do an American remake. It joins Shaolin Soccer and Hero on the list of reasons North American fans of HK films hate Miramax, which keeps buying the best HK films and then sitting on them.
It's a self-defeating strategy, given the ease with which you can acquire HK films on DVD these days, that just lets them run far behind the curve. In the time it's taken Miramax to release Infernal Affairs, there's been both a really good prequel (Infernal Affairs II) and a mediocre sequel (Infernal Affairs III).
Infernal Affairs is a Hong Kong crime thriller that is less bullet ballet - though there are a couple of shootouts - than an exercise in psychological gamesmanship. The cops have a mole deep within a drug gang, whose job is to discover the identity of the mole the gang has planted amongst the cops.
I can see why Scorsese wants to do a remake. This is not a film that hinges on specific cultural reference points. Andy Lau's bad cop and Tony Leung's bad gangster could live anywhere from London to New York to Buenos Aires.
What matters is the psychological tension of the performances and the director's ability to present the milieu. At the onset of the film's climax, Lau and Leung meet on a rooftop and director/cinematographer Lau Wai Keung spreads a panoramic view of the city behind them. It's a startling moment. Just as the tension is screwed one notch tighter, the director gives us some visual relief from the film's claustrophobic warren of narrow streets, small offices and back rooms.
Infernal Affairs is a wonderfully constructed thriller about people under pressure. In tone, it's less like one of John Woo's or Johnny To's films than Sidney Lumet's periodic investigations of NYPD like Serpico and Prince Of The City.
He has two of the great stars of HK cinema in Lau, a specialist in this type of film, and Leung, better known to North American audiences for his appearance in Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love, which won him best actor at Cannes.
Lau's forte is stone-faced tough guys, while Leung specializes in men who can't express their emotional turmoil. Both are working within their types here, but each also works subtly against type. Lau never gets that explosive moment that's a high point of his work in films like Johnnie To's The Mission and Running Out Of Time, while Leung's never able to assert the quiet authority his characters often display.
This is a superb thriller with terrific performances. See it on the big screen before its inevitable arrival on home video.