The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Infernal Affairs

After a career of films that were also deserving of Oscar status, Martin Scorcese finally won his best directing Oscar in 2006 for The Departed.  There was a sense he won the award as much as a career achievement award as opposed to just Departed on its own.  It was a great, well-made, exciting movie, but was it better than Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, or Raging Bull among others?  And for the cherry on top, this wasn't an original Scorcese flick.  I'll admit I was disappointed to find out it was a remake of a Hong Kong movie made just four years before, 2002's Infernal Affairs.

Seeing a remake first can't help but impact your reaction, your judgment when seeing the original.  Comparing the U.S. versus the Hong Kong version is easier though.  For one, the story was changed very little from original to remake, but something else caught me by surprise.  Watching The Departed, you're familiar with all these great actors, Nicholson, DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, Sheen, Baldwin, and many more.  You have a preexisting movie relationship with them, but being dropped into Hong Kong Departed, there's no issue there.  Yes, I knew where the story was going, but it's so well-made, so well-handled with all its twists and turns that it is as fun to watch as the first time I watched The Departed.

Two young men are about to go down very different roads.  Yan tested so well at the police academy that he's been chosen to work deep undercover as a mole in the most infamous Hong Kong gangs.  Lau is a member of the Triad gang, maybe the most powerful in the country, and will work his way up the police force as a source for his gang.  Years pass, and the two men know the other exists, but that's it.  There's nothing else.  Yan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) has worked for three years with crime boss Sam (Eric Tsang) and is doing his best to take the gang down piece by piece, protecting himself all the time. Lau (Andy Lau) has been tasked with finding the mole in the police force by the only man who knows Yan's identity, Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). Both men have laid their lives on the line, but can either get out alive before they're discovered?

The characters are familiar, the storyline more than recognizable, and even the stylish shooting techniques are there.  Scorcese of course put his own unique spin on his version, trademarks like certain tracking shots or even just using the Rolling Stones as part of his soundtrack.  What pulled me into 'Infernal' was that where Departed tended to drift at times, this is a streamlined version of the story.  There are no wasted scenes, no subplots that don't add much to the story.  Directors Wai-keung Lau and Alan Mak present this great back and forth story with countless scenes just dripping with tension that keep you on the edge of your seat, leaving the slower moving relationship back home scenes out to dry. All it takes is one slip up by either man, and it's game over.  The movie flows along at 101 minutes and it feels like it goes by even quicker than that.

Four main characters stand out from the rest here where Departed had a lot of supporting characters.  The acting is perfect here, especially Wai as Yan, the deep undercover cop.  He is that right mix of angst and worry, the result of his job slowly wearing him down, and confidence and guts to do what he has to.  You're rooting for this character, still somehow knowing that this will never end well for him.  The brother -- maybe even father -- relationship that develops with Inspector Wong provides one of the movie's gut-wrenching scenes too, credit to Chau-Sang for making this great character without much screentime. Lau as Lau (original choice of names) isn't as good a character only because he never comes across as particularly bad or evil.  Matt Damon was surprisingly evil in the part, and you can't help but compare.  Tsang hams it up as crime boss Sam, that bad guy you love to hate.

This was my first real exposure to a Hong Kong crime thriller, and I came away very impressed. Shooting in Hong Kong, the locations are crowded, claustrophobic and packed in tight, giving me a feeling of being closed in just like the characters are.  It's a stylish urban setting that acts almost like another character in the story.  The violence isn't overdone and could even be considered tame, leaving the gore to the viewer's imagination.  Certain scenes stand out (SPOILERS like THIS one) with this great visual eye. The continuing use of reflections and windows keeps popping up, but it's never overdone.  There are fade to blacks and some timely uses of slow motion, all aided by Kwong Wing Chan's appropriately subdued score. Just on a pure movie basis -- characters and story aside -- Infernal Affairs is a gem.

SPOILERS about the ending SPOILERS Scorcese's movie threw you for a loop by basically killing every main character in about 12 seconds flat.  Infernal Affairs goes down a different route, one I didn't like at first.  Yan gets killed trying to prove he's in fact a cop while Lau escapes untouched.  Maybe it's because Wahlberg killing Damon in The Departed was such a solid ending, but I wanted to see Lau go down.  Then I thought about it, and this ending works just as well.  It's the last line that sells it, damning Lau to a lifetime of self-hate and doubt.  The movie is still fresh in my head, but right now, I'll say I liked Infernal Affairs as much, if not more, than The Departed.  Either way, it is a great movie.

Infernal Affairs <---trailer (2002): ****/****

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