Infernal Affairs (2002)

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*. A movie that will always, sadly, be yoked to Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the inferior remake. And I don’t want to seem precious saying that, or imply that The Departed is a bad movie. It’s just that I think, on balance, this version is better. Scorsese improved on some points, but dropped the ball in other places.
*. It’s a great premise — basically a doubling down on Woo’s Hard-Boiled, only this time with mirror moles — that leads us, without too great a strain on our credulity, from one excellent set-piece suspense sequence to another. The running game of cellphone tag is especially well conceived, and given a sense of urgency that Scorsese lacks.
*. Tony Leung and Andy Lau beat Di Caprio and Damon hands down (actors vs. stars?), and Eric Tsang is much better than Nicholson as the crime lord. Tsang inhabits the role more naturally, seeming both more genially charismatic and more cruel.
*. The women are better too, and I only wish we got to see more of them. I thought it fascinating that in the “Making of” featurette all the cast and crew are interviewed aside from the female leads, who are just talked about. None of the women are interviewed. In the behind-the-scenes featurette they don’t even appear to have been invited to the wrap-celebration banquet. Have you ever noticed how women don’t seem to get a lot of play in DVD extras? They are usually left out of the commentaries too.

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*. Now this isn’t to say it’s a perfect film. Far from it. It handles suspense well, but shies away from action. Watching it again, I’m surprised how little actually happens. It’s tight to a fault, being a bit hard to follow in the early going. The score is generic, becoming downright annoying when the sentimental theme song plays.
*. Worst of all, the flashbacks are ham-handed, and made even more painful by the drippy music and switch to black-and-white and slow motion to recall scenes we know well enough (or should know well enough) anyway.
*. For example: I think it’s enough that the hero Yan sees the envelope on the gangster mole’s desk with his writing on it. We know what this means. It’s hardly necessary to go back to show us the scene where he wrote those characters on the envelope. The directors could have just let Leung play it.
*. That old, annoying cliché of the dead man falling on the car horn. Curse the man who first came up with that one.
*. Is the roof of a building really the most inconspicuous place undercover agents could find to meet in Hong Kong? That final showdown strikes me as too much like striking a pose. I don’t like scenes that are ridiculous and whose only excuse is that they look good. I think they are a failure of the screenwriter, since it’s his/her job to come up with scenes that look good and make sense.
*. There’s something almost quaint about how the ending had to be re-shot for Chinese censors, so that Lau is arrested when he steps off the elevator and is led away by the police. Crime doesn’t pay in China. They’re serious.
*. Thanks to its success it was followed by a pair of unlikely sequels. In the face of such egregious profiteering we may forgive Hollywood’s opportunism.

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