Infernal Affairs

November, 2004, Thriller

Hong Kong action movies have been ridiculed for so long they've become moviedom's equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield to mainstream American audiences; with the exception of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they just don't get any respect. That's a shame; if you subscribe to legendary director Sam Fuller's theory of B-grade movie-making,  (the camera, the actors and when possible, the set should always be in motion) the Asian film capital continues to turn out a series of handsomely made melodramas, (see the October 24th review of Breaking News) with cinematography that matches their often consistently fine action sequences, plots and scripts that rival the hard-edged cynicism of the best of American film noir and starring actors every bit as attractively laconic as the best Hollywood can offer. Affairs swept the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2002, (the year in which it was released there) and has quickly spawned a pre-quel and sequel neither of which have yet made it to the U.S. High art it ain't, but if you're looking for a good adrenalin-rush, you could do a lot worse. Your biggest challenge will be finding a theater actually showing it…

Veteran actor/director Andy Lau, (Hong Kong's answer to Clint Eastwood) stars and directs this robust examination of a Hong Kong-based crime syndicate so well entrenched it can recruit gang members who are immediately told to enroll in the police department's training academy in order to act as moles upon graduation. Of course, the cops are doing the same thing--training recruits who are immediately sent under-cover straight from the police academy to join the city's gangs, reporting to a single "handler" to minimize the possibility their exposure. "Infernal Affairs" thus becomes a game of point/counterpoint when a drug lord, (who has unwittingly hired an undercover cop in his crew) tales on the head of a drug unit one of whose rising stars is really an imbedded member of the gang the police are trying to destroy. 

This quickly established premise sets up a spine-tingling drug buy, the camera cutting from scenes in the police station to those in the grubby basement of a restaurant where the buy is taking place. Modern technology is cleverly wedded to the use of Morse Code; thereafter, it's bloody shoot-outs, car chases and most surprisingly, a solid examination of the manner in which each spy begins to absorb the ethos of those with whom he's consorting. The results don't cover new ground--there are lots of movies which examine the thin line between the actions of those who commit crimes and those charged with apprehending the perpetrators--but Infernal Affairs does a more than credible job of presenting fully realized characters on both sides, so that it's hard not to like some aspects of the bad guys and easy to be repulsed by the often coldly manipulative actions of the good ones.

The action moves briskly to its double-cross climax, exactly 101 minutes of crisply delivered mayhem wrapped up in slick production values and solid, journeyman characterizations. By the time its morally ambivalent ending rolls around, the quotations from the writings of Buddha which bracket the action have been perfectly realized, and Mr. Lau and his crew have delivered a police thriller they can be proud of.

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