Film Review: Infernal Affairs (2002)

A triad member in the police department and an undercover cop working for a gangster are pitted against each other in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Infernal Affairs features Hong Kong superstars Andy Lau and Tony Leung as moles hidden deep in opposing sides of a terrific battle between a ruthless mob boss (Eric Tsang) and a tough police sergeant (Anthony Wong). Both spies struggle with and question their many years spent living double lives and wonder where their true selves lie while working assiduously to discover the other and avoid exposure.

Infernal Affairs packs a lot into 100 minutes. The visuals are slick, with Hong Kong edifices highlighted in rooftop and nighttime scenes. The editing feels a touch experimental and the plot and characters are not always obvious, requiring the viewer to pay attention or watch more than once to catch deliberate clues. Twists, betrayals, and other complications form an obstacle course for the two lead characters who already walk a tightrope within their own environments.

The film takes its English title from the term “internal affairs”, which references the investigations made within the police force, and “inferno”, another name for hell. The lives of the two central characters of the film are consumed with anxiety and peril as they live under the weight of their jobs and even more so when their superiors find out that there is a mole in the ranks. Tony Leung’s character struggles with the greater sacrifice of operating undercover for ten years in the immediate danger of working under a volatile mob boss while he secretly supplies information to the police. Andy Lau’s character, by contrast, excels in his police work and has a very more comfortable life but questions whether he would prefer his official position as a cop to be his only identity as he finds himself enjoying the trappings of success and legitimacy and exasperated by the demands of protecting his triad ties.

As some may know, this riveting thriller was remade into Martin Scorsese’s The Departed with the setting moved from Hong Kong to Boston and with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the starring roles. Unfortunately, a Whitey Bulger-inspired secondary plot headlined by Jack Nicholson somewhat derailed the tightly written story of the two moles. However, both films share themes of dual identities, complicated relationships to male authority figures (namely the moles’ respective police handler and gang leader), and religious overtones (Buddhism in Infernal Affairs and Catholicism in The Departed).

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 5

Story: 5

Acting: 5

Dialogue: 4

Editing: 4

Visuals: 5

Music/Score: 4

Overall Average: 4.6