It all comes to a crashing crescendo, even if it is a bit unnecessary.
“Sorry, I’m a cop.”
Trilogies are tough. A good trilogy – be it books or films or whatever – needs to tell three stories, while setting up and expanding upon wider scenarios in order to tell a wider, cohesive narrative. Sometimes this is broken down chronologically – see Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, and sometimes they’re told from different points in time from different points of view, like in the Godfather movies. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs took its influence from the latter, which resulted in a prequel that supported the original while telling its own compelling story. But, like Star Wars, this was a trilogy that was never originally meant to be one. And when you kill off the majority of your main characters in the first part, it leaves little in the way of opportunity.
So Infernal Affairs 3 is both a sequel, and a prequel, and a midquel and kind of everything in between. Ten months after the death of Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung), Inspector Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau) is reinstated into Internal Affairs, after an investigation regarding the events at the end of the first film. Things haven’t gone great for him, and he is on top of everything else, going through a divorce with Mary (Sammi Cheng, in a cameo). However, he quickly learns that one of the moles that Sam sent to the academy is killing off the others. He believes this mole to be Superintendent Yeung (Leon Lai), chief of the Security Wing. A cat-and-mouse game of wits between them begins, as he uncovers dealings that Yeung had with Hon Sam (Eric Tsang) before his death, and mainlander gang leader Shen (Chen Daoming).
In flashbacks, we see more of the story unfold as Sam is now paranoid his underlings will try to usurp him like he did Hau in IA2. He tests Yan and Keung (Chapman To)’s loyalties, and allows them to come to meetings with Shen as he wants to expand the business into the mainland. We also see Yan attending his court-mandated psychiatric meetings with Dr Lee (Kelly Chen). In the present, Lau meets with Lee and begins to learn more about Yan’s life. But still racked with guilt and suffering from paranoia and increasing mental strain, Lau’s search for the mole sends him down a path of identity crises and faltering reality.
Boy, that was difficult to write, and it immediately emphasises the biggest problem with this movie. It is all over the place. Whereas parts one and two dealt with straightforward stories, part three tells about three or four stories: Lau’s battle of wits with Yeung; his interactions with Dr Lee; Sam’s dealings with the mainland mafia; Yan meeting and falling for Dr Lee and a couple more that I’ve probably forgotten. And while having several strands of story play out together is not necessarily a bad thing, they are badly connected, resulting in something closer resembling a spiderweb of confusion. The story’s secrets – and twists – are the reason for this as any straight answer would give the entire game away, so characters talk in riddles and confusing half-sentences.
It’s a victim of its own popularity. Tony Leung makes a welcome return – his endearing smile is never the worst part of any movie – but isn’t really needed outside of the hallucinations and dream sequences involving Lau. The same can be said for Inspector Wong (Anthony Wong), who has about two scenes, and to a lesser extent, Sam who has more to do with the mainland gang/Yeung story, but doesn’t contribute much. It’s clear that the main 4 cast were reunited to sell tickets and give the audience what they want and because of it the movie suffers. It’s overstuffed, with never enough time given to explain just what the hell is going on. Which is a shame, because it actually is really cool to see them all back. If only the filmmakers could find a better way to incorporate them smoother.
But there are still quite a lot of things that it does right. The series’ trademark tension is omnipresent, and ramped up to eleven during the scenes with Yeung and Lau. In fact, that’s the most interesting part of the story. If the focus had been on that, elaborating on those scenes and focusing the flashbacks where they mattered, IA3 would have turned out to be as good as the others. Lau is an interesting character – he wants so badly to do good but can never escape everything that he’s done – and his struggle to cope with life as a regular cop while trying to save himself from being outed could have been really, really good but it’s bogged down by unneeded flashbacks and pointless characters.
The score again is great, as is the cinematography. Whereas part 2 was grimier and grimmer, part 3 is set against the brighter backdrop of the police headquarters, where the coldness of the office and the lifelessness of the architecture around him emphasise Lau’s lack of identity. And let it not be said that triads don’t know where to meet. From the 10,000 Buddha Temple in Sha Tin (part 1), to gold-gilded Thailand (part 2), to the giant Tian Tian Buddha, Hon Sam only meets at places that look the best on film. The triad scenes were always the more visually interesting, so it’s good that they exist to break the monotony of the bland police HQ.
The cast also knock it out of the park, with the new additions bringing something new and original. Shen is a mystery, both villainous and also quite likeable, while Leon Lai’s Yeung is cold, calculating and smug. Lai’s performance shines, and his interactions with Lau make his story the most engaging. At the end of the day, there really isn’t a massive need for this movie to exist. Everything is capped off nicely in the first two, but seeing it did happen … well, it’s not that bad. By far the worst in the trilogy, sure, but it has two juggernauts of HK crime thriller to compete with. It would have benefitted from keeping its story focused and cutting some of the fat off. The payoff is worth it, and overall I can and will recommend it to anyone who enjoyed parts one and two. But it’s something of a bumpy ride to get there.
Verdict: A strong final act gives the series a worthy ending, if only the story wasn’t so all over the place
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Story: 8/10 overall, 6/10 for execution
Tension: All the way up, as predicted
Pacing: All over the place
Crazy Keung-o-meter: Smashes his own head with a bottle to prove a point/10
Infernal Affairs III (2003)
Also known as: mou gaan dou 3
Directors: Andrew Lau, Alan Mak
Writers: Alan Mak, Felix Chong
Andy Lau – Senior Inspector Lau Kin-ming
Tony Leung – Chan Wing-yan
Leon Lai – Superintendent Yeung
Kelly Chen – Dr. Lee
Chen Daoming – “Shadow” Shen Cheng
Eric Tsang – Hon Sam
Chapman To – “Crazy” Keung
Anthony Wong – Superintendent Wong
Berg Ng – Inspector Cheung
Wan Chi-keung – Officer Leung
Gordon Lam – Inspector B
Sammi Cheng – Mary (Lau’s wife)
Carina Lau – Mary (Sam’s wife)
Huang Zhizhong – Shen Liang
Waise Lee – Sergeant Chan Chun
Edison Chen – young Lau Kin-ming
Shawn Yue – young Chan Wing-yan
Eddie Li – young Yeung Kam-wing