Infernal Affairs 2 (2003) Movie Review

“Infernal Affairs 2” comes to us a quick one year after the critical and commercial success of the original. The sequel — or prequel, actually — returns almost all of the same faces behind and in front of the cameras, including young bucks Edison Chen (“The Twins Effect”) and Shawn Yue (“The New Option”), both of whom had cameos in the original as the younger versions of Andy Lau and Tony Leung, respectively.

It’s 1991, and brooding young punk Ming has just assassinated the current boss of the Hong Kong underworld at the behest of Mary (Carina Lau), the strong-willed wife of capo Sam (Eric Tsang), who has no knowledge of the killing. With the boss dead, his son Ngai (Francis Ng) steps in to fill the void. An unlikely gangster, Ngai is a mild-mannered businessman who looks more at home in a boardroom. Doing a Michael Corleone, Ngai quickly asserts himself as the new boss much to everyone’s chagrin. And much to Mary’s consternation, Sam has no plans to challenge Ngai, as was her entire reason for orchestrating the gangland slaying in the first place.

Aside from unavoidable baggage, “Infernal Affairs 2” also brings with it an excess of characters, subplots, and an obvious desire to turn this latest installment in what has become a franchise into an epic. “IA 2” feels overly burdened, offering up too many orchestral scores and too many grandiose plotlines that brings up images of the “Godfather” movies, in particular “Godfather 2”. There’s even a scene halfway into “IA 2” where Ngai choreographs the cleansing of “all family debts” that results in bloodletting of — well, of “Godfather”-like proportions.

If co-creators Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, and Felix Chong hadn’t wanted to offer up comparisons to Coppola’s gangland masterpiece then they shouldn’t have patterned “IA 2” so closely to Coppola’s films. When Francis Ng (“Bullets Over Summer”) confronts three conspirators in his father’s murder, you just know writers Chong and Mak have been overdosing lately on the adventures of the Corleone family. Later in the film, Ng’s attempts to turn the family’s illegal business into a legal enterprise are thwarted. This plot twist also involves Sam turning state’s witness, resulting in certain family members being held hostage. Sound familiar?

“IA 2” is a reasonably good movie, but if it was supposed to tell the tale of the young Ming and Yan, then the train went off the track about the same time the filmmakers decided to go for epic instead of just making a good movie. “IA 2” is a film trying to chug its way up the epic mountain, hoping to reach the pinnacle and thus quality for epic status, but it simply has too much baggage to reach its goal. For one, both Ming and Yan are little more than supporting players, literally moping in the background as the real stars strut about in the spotlight.

In a film that’s supposed to show us how Ming and Yan came to be the men we know them as in “Infernal Affairs”, it’s more than a little ironic that both characters were essentially superfluous. In perhaps an attempt to justify the film’s status as a prequel, some never-before-known subplots are created for the two characters. Ming, we learn, had a thing for Mary. (Not coincidentally, Mary is also the name of Ming’s future girlfriend.) Meanwhile, we learn that Yan is the stepbrother of Ngai, and thus has criminal blood in his veins. Beyond these little tidbits, both characters could have been excised from the film and not very much about “IA 2” would have changed. For many, the lack of involvement by the two characters will feel like a big cheat.

The real stars of “IA 2” are Anthony Wong’s policeman and Francis Ng’s criminal. As Ng’s Michael Corleone attempts to clean up the family business, Wong is in hot pursuit with a personal vendetta. Also in the mix is Eric Tsang’s Sam, who has his own machinations waiting in the wing. But the truth is, if you’ve seen the “Godfather” movies then you’ve seen “IA 2”. Which isn’t to say “IA 2” should be dismissed. There’s a lot to like about the movie, in particular the confrontation between Wong and Ng. The two veterans deliver powerhouse performances, especially Ng as the secretly brutal crimelord. Roy Cheung, Wong’s hitman comrade in “The Mission”, also appears as Ng’s trusted, and silent, lieutenant.

“IA 2” has no business being included in the franchise because it offers nothing of real relevance to the story. On the other hand, I would very much like to follow the further adventures of the adult Ming, who, in the aftermath of the original, has begun to make headway toward the straight and narrow. Will he make it or will his past come back to haunt him? We’ll have to wait and see in “Infernal Affairs 3”, scheduled for release in 2004. One can only hope the filmmakers will discard the need to make another 2-hour epic and just try to make a good movie regardless of running length.

Andrew Lau, Alan Mak (director) / Felix Chong, Alan Mak (screenplay)
CAST: Edison Chen …. Young Ming
Shawn Yue …. Young Yan
Anthony Wong …. SP Wong
Francis Ng …. Ngai Wing-Hau
Eric Tsang …. Sam
Carina Lau …. Mary

Buy Infernal Affairs 2 on DVD