Two undercover scenarios fused into one tense, tail-chasing whole, the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs recharged a slumping movie industry at home (where it spawned a pair of sequels within a year of its 2002 release) and is soon scheduled for Hollywood reconstructive surgery at the hands of Martin Scorsese. Working from an irresistibly neat axial symmetry—Tony Leung plays a cop playing a gangster, Andy Lau plays a gangster playing a cop—Infernal Affairs spins in place with aplomb, generating exponentially more vertiginous doublings with each sweaty-palmed set piece.
Leung’s Yan, who as a young cadet was dispatched by Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong) to infiltrate the triads, now serves as trusted aide to crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang). Sam’s apprentice Ming (Lau), likewise secretly embedded with the enemy many years ago, is now a high-ranking police officer who reports to Wong. The diagram of cross-purposes is so snarled that the characters are at all times floundering in a quicksand of imperfect knowledge. Implausibly convoluted, the hall-of-mirrors plot allows for much moral bewilderment and sexy existential brooding. The two heroes share a pair of father figures, and both have inhabited their covert personas for so long they no longer know who they are. The identity crises reach bipolar pitch when a botched drug bust alerts cops and gangsters alike to the existence of a mole in their ranks. Yan and Ming are entrusted—by both sides—to unmask the culprit, i.e., to ferret out each other and themselves. As in Michael Mann’s Heat, which Infernal Affairs often evokes (not least because the women are marginal to the point of extinction), the antagonists function as repellent magnetic poles. They meet only three times, and the sensationally matched Lau and Leung, lupine and doe-eyed respectively, spark fireworks that make Heat‘s De Niro–Pacino summit look like an awkward blind date.
Hong Kong crime films are renowned for pyrotechnic splatter, but Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau (not the actor) and Alan Mak, owes less to the perverse flamboyance of Hollywood transplant John Woo than the comparatively terse flashiness of Milkyway honcho Johnnie To (The Mission). By design, it’s the opposite of an action film. Tension arises from a congealing mood of queasy inertia. Almost every scene sinks into a miasmic panic of confusion and suspicion. The pulse-quickening sequences, though densely edited, have a helpless, frozen quality. Indeed, the strongest adrenaline jolt is an almost motionless concerto of flickering GPS markers, jammed cell phone signals, and an index finger discreetly tapping out Morse code.
Glamorous and gritty, the look of the film is post–Wong Kar-wai cosmopolitan luxe—all glass reflections, neon smudges, and sets so soothingly green-filtered they resemble aquariums. An absurd amount of the action takes place on rooftops that emphasize the panoramic Hong Kong harbor and skyline.
Introductory titles evoke the Buddhist concept of “continuous hell,” conferring a philosophical tint on the movie’s infinite circularity. Back in the real world, a story with no end simply means continuous profits—two follow-ups were rushed into production. (The trilogy screens at the New York Film Festival and is available on DVD in Chinatown.) Sidestepping the first film’s inconvenient deaths, Part II, a madly cross-cutting prequel, contrives a pretzel of a backstory, cribbing from Godfather II and handing the baton to the superb veterans Tsang and Wong. In Part III, which hopscotches through the months before and after Part I’s compact time frame, the karmic-wheel metaphor gains unwanted resonance; the film runs in circles before finally collapsing from exhaustion.