Infernal Affairs II arrived just a year after its smash hit predecessor. It was a moderate commercial success, pulling in about half that of the first movie. The diminishing return can be at least partially put down to the absence of the two stars of the first movie “ Andy Lau and Tony Leung (though Lau did return as the producer).
Infernal Affairs II takes the form of a prequel to the events of the first film, with Edison Chen and Shaun Yue reprising their roles as the younger versions of corrupt cop Lau (Andy Lau’s character) and police mole in the criminal underworld Yan (Tony Leung’s character). We see some of the choices they make that led them to where they arrived at the start of IA1. However, the makers wisely don’t try to load the whole movie on the young actors’ shoulders and foreground some of the other characters “ such as Inspector Wong and the charismatic and morally complex gangster Hong Sam (Eric Tsang).
The events of Infernal Affairs II stretch over six years, opening in 1991 with Inspector Wong expressing his wish for Sam to take over the gangs on Hong Kong. He sees the gangs as a depressing but inevitable feature of life, but thinks at least Sam’s more reasonable than the current big boss. Sam shrugs off the idea, not knowing that Lau is, as they speak, out to assassinate Kwun, the big boss. A power vacuum is about to open up that will have significant consequences for all the characters involved.
Infernal Affairs II is full of plots and counter plots “ to put a certain person at the top of the pile, to eliminate another, to boost one’s own status. It is noticeable how the actions of the good guys and the bad guys are remarkably similar, just with different motives. And we know that there will be no decisive move made “ neither good nor evil will triumph “ we know this because the events of IA1 are around the corner, with the same plotting and fighting. This gives the whole film a powerful air of bleak inevitability about it “ people will kill and die and compromise their principles, but nothing will really change. The quotes from a description of Buddhist eternal hell that bookmark the movie are quite appropriate.
Infernal Affairs II lacks the breathless pace of the first movie, and the standout performances of that movie’s superstar leads. However, it’s a strong piece in its own right, more considered, and prepared to take its time. It also boasts a fine ensemble cast. At no point does it feel like a cashing in exercise based on the original’s success, rather an organic continuation, because there were more stories to tell about this group of characters. It’s well made, well shot under Hong Kong’s brutal neon glow, and well-acted. It probably deserved more success than it achieved, and can certainly hold its own against its more famous predecessor.