Martin Scorsese used this movie as the framework for The Departed. And while Infernal Affairs has received high praise and dozens of awards, the feeling here is that Scorsese took an interesting plot and made it into a classic film.
Maybe that’s cinematic jingoism.
But we like to think it’s why Scorsese is Scorsese.
Think of Infernal Affairs as a beautifully detailed line drawing. Scorsese took that outline and turned it into a colorful and layered Impressionistic painting.
The tension and absorbing plot twists that made The Departed such a great film are all here. The action scenes and murders are recreated almost verbatim. The botched drug deal, the fall from the roof, the meeting in the movie theater and subsequent chase and the finale on and off the elevator play as virtual mirror images—one in Chinese and the other in Bostonian.
Because both films are so highly regarded among film fans, there is an ongoing—and sometimes bitter—debate about them. Go online and you’ll find moviegoers backing one film over the other with an aggressive fanaticism normally associated with rival sports fans.
The makers of Infernal Affairs came away with dozens of prizes from the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2003, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Tony Leung) and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong).
The film, released with a limited run in the United States in 2004, has been credited in many cinematic circles with reviving the then-floundering Hong Kong film industry by pumping new life and creativity into what had become a staid and predicable business.
A prequel and a sequel were subsequently made, with all three parts serving as scripture for an almost cult-like IA following in the United States and other countries.
But to argue over which is the better film is similar to debating whether Tom Brady or Peyton Manning is the better quarterback. Both play the game of football at the highest level; both movies are superior contemporary crime films.
Still, the argument doesn’t stop.
While Wai-keung Lau seemed pleased with the success of The Departed after it won Best Picture at the 79th Academy Awards, his codirector Alan Mak helped fuel the controversy with comments he made at the time to the South China Morning Post.
On the one hand, Mak sounded snide when noting that since The Departed was almost a carbon copy of Infernal Affairs, he was pleased his film had won the top Academy Award. But in the same interview, he complained about changes that had been made in the script, particularly to its ending. Mak, according to the newspaper article, pointed out that in Infernal Affairs, the Triad mole inside the police department survives at the expense of the undercover cop.
“With the death of Matt Damon’s character, the symbolism in the film is gone—it was designed so that the opportunist lives and has to face a life led on false pretenses,” Mak said.
Two other changes jump out. While The Departed had the same love interest for the two undercover operatives, Infernal Affairs has the rogue cop living with a novelist and the undercover investigator falling in love with his psychiatrist. This made it easier to incorporate some introspection and foreshadowing, two developments that were implied, but not so obvious, in The Departed. The novelist at one point complains about character development in the book she is working on and asks her lover to help her sort it out. She says she doesn’t know if she wants her character to be “a good guy or a bad guy” and wonders if, in real life, you get to choose between the two.
Ming (Andy Lau), the Triad member who has infiltrated the police department, finds himself facing the same dilemma—more so than Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan did in The Departed, Ming appears to believe he can wipe the slate clean and become a real police officer.
When Ming kills Hon Sam, the Triad leader, it’s clearly with that in mind. When Sullivan takes out Frank Costello, it’s because he believes Costello is cooperating and might expose him. Sullivan is driven by self-preservation, a theme that occurs again and again in The Departed. Ming has a more noble, albeit twisted, goal.
The other big differences between the films, in our opinion, are the importance of their respective mob bosses and the level of performance achieved by the actors playing those roles. Eric Tsang is effective as Sam, but doesn’t get the screen time or bring the same presence as Jack Nicholson, who created one of the all-time gangster film bad guys with his portrayal of the diabolical, philosophical and homicidal Frank Costello.
There’s just no comparison.
That being said, Infernal Affairs is a good movie. But if you’ve seen The Departed first, you probably won’t be as impressed.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “No wonder Martin Scorsese wants to remake it. . . . Co-director Andrew Lau, a onetime cinematographer . . . has time and again breathed life into the Hong Kong film industry with slickly produced yet irresistibly human and entertaining action films. With Infernal Affairs, which he codirected with writer Alan Mak, Lau has outdone himself. The directors walk a fluidly edited tightrope between character study and action tour de force.”—G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: If you’re into making comparisons between originals and remakes, then back-to-back screenings of Infernal Affairs and The Departed would be an interesting undertaking and a great way to fuel discussion on which of the two is better. If you just want to be entertained, either movie is worth revisiting.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Ming and Yan finally come face to face, but Yan still doesn’t realize Ming is the mole within the police department he has been chasing. They have a discussion about Yan’s undercover work and his desire to finally come in from the cold. Yan says he’s been at it 10 years. Their exchange is ironic and sets the stage for the movie’s blistering conclusion.
“I just want an identity, I want to be normal, man,” says Yan.
“Getting tired?” Ming asks.
“You’ve never been a mole,” Yan replies. “You won’t understand. Too bad I still can’t find the stooge. I’ll take him down if I find him.”
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: When The Departed won the Academy Award for Best Picture, there was a reference made to Infernal Affairs as the film on which it was based. However, IA, as its fans like to call it, was incorrectly identified as a Japanese film. This, no doubt, has added to the debate among film fans over real or perceived slights by those involved in making each film.
BEST LINE: “What thousands must die so that Caesar can become the great?” asks Triad leader Hon Sam as he initiates a young group of gangsters into his organization and lays out his plan to infiltrate the police department.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Intense.
BODY COUNT: Seven.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”