A group of young men are being lectured by their boss. They are the best. The brightest. The future of law enforcement. And they are also triad members.
Triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang) delivers a peptalk to his men, just before they sign up to be police cadets in a carefully planned move to gain the upper hand against the police department. One of these future police officers is Lau (Edison Chen).
As the new cadets are put through their paces, another young cadet, Yan (Shawn Yu) leaves the training facility, apparently unable to complete the training program. In reality hes been singled out by his to superior, Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong), to join an undercover program. As he leaves he looks back, and for a brief moment the undercover gangster and the undercover cop, share a glance.
The years pass. Yan gets more and more involved in the underworld, but he becomes increasingly frustrated. He wants out, but Wong manages to convince him to stay. Yan continues his work, always on the run from his unsuspecting colleagues. Meanwhile Lau is slowly advancing in the police force. Through hard work and determination he makes his way up to the top.
10 years after the two young men went their separate ways, Yan (Tony Leung) is now the right hand man of Sam, and Lau (Andy Lau) is a high profile Inspector working with Superintendent Wong.
When a sting operation goes awry, both Wong and Sam begin to suspect that they have a mole. Lau is assigned to find the identity of the undercover operative, while Yan tries to discover whos the informant within the police department.
A relentless game of cat and mouse ensues. The two undercover agents once again face each other, as their bosses size each other up and prepare for one final showdown...
Theres something quite unique about Infernal Affairs. It feels like someone in the Hong Kong film industry said: Come on guys! What the hell has happened to us? Surely we can do better! Lets make something special!
The most talented actors and artisans in Hong Kong join forces to conjure up this intense high profile police drama. Every frame saturated by quality. Every scene loaded with intensity.
It would have been easy to spew out yet another Hong Kong police action movie. It would have been easy to litter it with gunfights and gruesome deaths, but the filmmakers have resisted the temptation to play it safe. Instead theyve made a conscious choice to stray from familiar roads. In doing so, theyve opted for a format devoid of the most famous trademarks of Hong Kong cinema. Theres no martial arts in this film, almost no gunplay and very little slow-motion.
On top of this, the film possess a patience rarely seen in Hong Kong films. It seems to be in no rush to amaze or dazzle us, instead it puts all its focus on slowly building momentum. The result is a film that feels distinctly more real they any other Hong Kong movie I remember having seen.
But the real prize here is the supercharged near miss situations, when undercover gangster and undercover cop are close to exposing each other. These are moments of pure excitement.
Take for example the films most intense scene: Wong and Lau lead their unit in a sting operation intended to catch Sam red-handed in the middle of a dope deal. Sam prepares to meet his contacts with Yan by his side. As the operation progresses, the two undercover agents scramble to notify their real bosses about whats happening, at the same time as they must appear to perform the duties of their fake identities.
The genius of this scene is beyond words. The best part, though, is that this scene - and others like it - are totally and utterly believable, and they never turn into movie moments (you, the kind of moments where you say, okay... this ONLY happens in the movies).
Connoisseurs of Hong Kong cinema will appreciate the sheer number of high profile actors that signed up for this.
Leading the pack is Tony Leung (Chiu-Wai) with a breathtaking performance. Leungs eyes tell a story about a world of pain. I love to watch the details of his face when he acts. I remember seeing him for the first time in Hard-Boiled, and I specifically remember the look he gives his new boss (played by Anthony Wong), right after having mowed down his old boss with a machine-gun. His ability to suspend disbelief, simply by being utterly committed to every moment, is astonishing.
While the talents of Tony Leung were never in doubt, those of Andy Lau is a different story. Hes certainly had his share of hits and misses, but with Infernal Affairs Lau delivers an unprecedented mature performance. Complex and full of nuances. By far his best work.
Even comic relief Eric Tsang gets to shed his familiar skin to become Sam. The character emerges as a vicious unrelenting crimeboss. Quite effective, and quite scary. Not the kind of guy you want to underestimate. When he meets face-to-face with Superintendent Wong, he refuses to shake his hand. Ever seen someone shake hands with a corpse? he asks.
As his perfect opposite we find Anthony Wong in one of the most subdued and underplayed performances of his career. And it suits him well. Ill kill you, says Sam. Well see, says Wong calmly and smiles vaguely. Anthony Wong is no stranger to over the top acting, but sometimes less is more, and this is one of those instances.
Obviously with a film of this size, the technical aspects are flawless. The cinematography is beautiful, the editing perfect and theres a overall sense that even the smallest department of the film crew is on its best behaviour.
Particularly impressive is the beautiful and diverse score, covering everything from large scale orchestral themes, to simple vocal arrangements and foreign inspired rhythms. It drapes the film in moody blanket, and underlines every emotion perfectly, without intruding.
If I had to criticise Infernal Affairs for something, it would be an unfortunate lack of memorable locations, despite plenty of memorable set-pieces. The super-cool whos tipping who off-scene takes place in some random crummy apartment. An important showdown is situated in an anonymous parking basement, and intense chase scenes often fail to utilize the Hong Kong backdrop properly. Its just a little flaw, but it does make the film seems slightly smaller than it really is.
Infernal Affairs is a stay of execution for the Hong Kong film industry. A glimmer of hope. A lighthouse in the dense fog. They still need plenty of fuel to navigate past the perilous cliffs, but the weather forecast looks good. Enough with the metaphors, roll on Infernal Affairs II...