Caught in Double-Cross Fire

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An undercover cop worms his way into a powerful Mob. A mobster joins the police force and rises quickly through the ranks. Each man knows there's an infiltrator in the other group, but neither knows who the rogue agent is. One thing they do know: if their identities are revealed, one of them will die.

The premise of Infernal Affairs is so simple and so suggestive, it's amazing there haven't been a dozen movies like it. Soon there will be. This superbly gnarly Hong Kong thriller, a hit throughout East Asia, is to be remade in Boston as The Departed, with Martin Scorsese directing Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as the two moles. But why wait for the Hollywood version? The original, now in U.S. theaters, is just about perfect.

For three years, undercover cop Yan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) has worked for Mob lord Sam (Eric Tsang). Sam's plant in the Hong Kong Triad Police Bureau is Ming (Andy Lau), whose commander, Wong (Anthony Wong), has been after Sam for most of his career. When the cops try to bust one of Sam's drug deals, both sides realize they are internally compromised. Yan and Ming must walk a fine line, getting information to their true bosses while hiding their own identities from their duped colleagues. Sometimes the only way to achieve that is by killing an ally.

As if all that weren't plot enough — and it's plenty — the script by Alan Mak and Felix Chong gives Ming a mystery-novelist wife (Sammi Cheng) and Yan a pretty shrink (Kelly Chen), an ex-girlfriend and a young daughter. At the center, though, is the wary dance of Yan and Ming, each man serving two masters, each character luring the viewer to sympathize with his charade and hope that somehow both can survive. Leung, who played the warrior-lover in Hero, and Lau, Hong Kong's top pop star and movie magnet, are terrific as smart men, ruthlessly loyal, feeling the nooses tighten and trying not to make the small mistakes that could prove fatal.

Within a year of its 2002 release, the film, directed by Andrew Lau (no relation to Andy) and Mak, had spawned a prequel and a sequel that underlined its similarity to the Godfather films. (The Infernal Affairs trilogy will be shown Oct. 10 as part of the New York Film Festival.) But the first is the best, the densest, the most tightly coiled. Sam's drug deal and the cops' tracking of it make for a beautifully orchestrated 20 min. set piece. The camera is ever on the prowl, but discreetly, observantly, like a cat burglar casing his victim's digs. Little editing ruses — a second or two of slow motion, say, to catch an actor's anguished face — heighten the intensity.

The relentless pace of Infernal Affairs, briskly spinning a story of two men on a collision course with their principles, offers lessons for Hollywood. This is how movies can move. This is how mature an action movie can be.