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October 01, 2004

Review: Infernal Affairs

Although it’s over two years old, this Hong Kong cop flick has had the double fortune (or misfortune) of both grabbing a limited North American release and becoming the latest import to be primed for a North American remake. I’m looking forward to the new version, not the least because of the choice to put Martin Scorsese behind the camera, while dreading it at the same time, not the least because of the choice to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as a tough guy. Nevertheless, the original, despite most of the attention being on the remake, is a damn good film.

The premise is this: Two men, a cop working undercover as a gang member and a gang member working as a cop, are assigned the task of sniffing each other out. Each side knows they harbour a mole. Each mole is so good at what he does that he evades suspicion. And, just to make things even more interesting, and to blur the line between right and wrong, and hero and villain, the two moles know each other.

The bulk of this is communicated before the title appears on the screen. In my last review, I criticized Cellular for moving along at breakneck speed through its various twists and turns. In this review, I want to praise Infernal Affairs for doing the same thing. The difference between the two films is that one relies solely on pace. In Cellular, if you blink you don’t miss anything other than an action sequence. In Infernal Affairs, the action sequences reveal the story. Blink and you’re lost. It’s a very engaging experience, and one that is satisfying whenever a new piece of information is given because the filmmakers trust you to fit the information into the frame of the story yourself. In one great sequence, a drug raid, the film challenges you to understand certain clues before the characters do. What a great way to pull the viewer in.

However, Infernal Affairs also develops several major themes. Perhaps the most interesting of which is the idea of who, or what, creates and controls our identity. Are we who we make ourselves, what others make of us, or what our environment makes of us? Take, for example, the cop whose identity as an undercover agent is known to only one man. If the man dies, does the cop cease to be an undercover agent and becomes just another gang member? Even the film’s villain, a subjective term, is shown to be in conflict with himself. His actions are clear but his motives are often left up to the interpretation of the viewer. A pivotal scene near the film’s conclusion, in which he kills another character, is a good example. His reason for pulling the trigger is what makes him either good or bad. And since he isn’t sure if he’s the good guy or the bad guy, how can we be? The filmmakers wisely leave it that way.

The film’s only major weakness is a sentimentality that creeps in, intrudingly, at some awkward moments, such as when a short, black and white, montage is provided after the death of a major character (the music doesn’t help either). Other than that, Infernal Affairs is an exciting film. Not much more to say. An action film that requires you to pay attention is a bit too rare these days. Don’t pass up the chance to see one.


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