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Published: Thursday, 1/6/2005

Masterful cop yarn is woven in Hong Kong

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tony Leung plays Yan, an undercover police officer, in Infernal Affairs. Tony Leung plays Yan, an undercover police officer, in Infernal Affairs.
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Now this is a good story:

Yan, who seems to shrink into his leather coat, is a cop who has been undercover for about 10 years, long enough to have erased his old life so thoroughly that only his boss now knows his true identity.

A kind of deflated Donnie Brasco type, Yan long ago infiltrated the underworld and now operates as the right-hand assistant to a roly-poly criminal who runs an unstoppable drug syndicate.

So far, so familiar.

But the operation is unstoppable for a very clever reason: This pudgy crime boss has a mole himself, as deeply undercover as Yan, tucked in the upper ranks of the police force, tipping off the gang when the cops get too close. For years, each mole has operated quietly, unaware of the other. Then both sides discover they have an informant in their midst.

Ming, a cop with a spotless record, is assigned to flush the traitor from the police force, while Yan is ordered to purge the gang of its own. The twist is (and it's revealed early on) - Ming is that mole.

To make an intricate story short, Yan and Ming are asked to nail themselves.

Intrigued?

I don't know how to make it any more plain: Just see Infernal Affairs (Buena Vista, $29.99) - which is simply one of the best American cop movies of the past decade or so.

Never mind that it was made in Hong Kong, by Hong Kong filmmakers Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, with Asian superstars Tony Leung (Yan) and Andy Lau (Ming) (no relation to Andrew Lau). And never mind that it's not even an American-made movie. Hollywood may churn out police procedurals and gangster flicks by the dozen, but on occasion it takes an outside eye to show how lazy we've grown - that we've become so adept at making certain films, we're on auto pilot.

Infernal Affairs takes raw movie material we're overly familiar with and reminds us how useful cliches can be when handled intelligently - raw material like suspense. Infernal Affairs makes it hard to catch our breath, and yet for an action film, there's little action, especially by Hong Kong standards. Where an American cop movie would rather let that tension snap into a gunfight or a chase scene, here the tension never eases.

Cell phones become the new sharpshooter weapons. It's all so recognizably American in style and high concept, it raises two questions: What exactly is a foreign picture these days, and why is Hollywood, Michael Mann aside, not making police movies this smart and heart-stopping?

Lau and Mak are clearly bowing at the altar of Mann and his understated tales of stressed men who always seem to operate in a city at dusk. I'm thinking of movies like Collateral and Heat, where character is never far from action. Yan and Ming have been clandestine so long, we're never certain which side they identify with. Because they're never certain. It's a distinction you hope survives when Infernal Affairs gets its inevitable Hollywood face-lift next year, relocated to Bos-ton and directed by Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon.

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THE STRONG, SILENT TYPE: Asian filmmakers are only now reminding us of how much we take our cop movies and horror films for granted. But for decades they've been taking the American western, outfitting it with samurai swords instead of Stetsons, and keeping one of our great neglected genres on a kind of life support.

Nominated for a best foreign-language picture Oscar last year, The Twilight Samurai (Empire, $26.98), new on video, is the most graceful example in a long while. It feels literally timeless; barring its color photography, it could have been shot 60 years ago or six months ago, playing as the kind of corrective in which Gary Cooper might have starred. It tells the story of a gentle samurai (Hiroyuki Sanada, from Ringu), not a rootless soldier for hire. He's a family man who wants his daughters to study philosophy and struggles to make a living in feudal Japan.

Not exactly action movie terrain, but I can't think of another samurai movie (although I can think of a few westerns) where the economic life of the hero is such an issue. The title is what his fellow samurai call him behind his back: When they go out drinking at the end of the day, our hero heads home at twilight to care for his family. It's a quiet, gentle story with a moral compass that gathers power because we know eventually swords will fly.

Director Yoji Yamada has made an oddly progressive kind of samurai film without being didactic or pretentious. The question at hand is not of honor; we're not mourning a way of life, like The Last Samurai. It's a question of ambition: If living long enough to watch your daughters grow up isn't enough for samurai, then maybe samurai should have faded quicker.

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DUDE, WHERE'S MY SITAR: Conjuring up that feeling of being in an, um, altered state has been the job of bad music for so long that we tend to forget the movies are so much better at it. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (New Line, $27.98) has a grand old time being both a morality play about ethnic cliches and a thoroughly spacey stoner comedy about two guys with the munchies. Non sequiturs pile up until you've got a pleasant Pythonesque buzz going. For those more melancholy days of winter, I suggest Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Collector's Edition (Universal, $27.98), newly released to capitalize on its place atop all those year-end best-of lists. If Harold and Kumar is a drug picture, director Michel Gondry's astonishing film is detox. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play a couple who choose to have memories of each other erased and find some things are beyond technology. What's new? A profile of Gondry, a scene deconstruction, deleted scenes. If you already own this modern classic, don't bother with the collector's edition; if you haven't seen it - like dude, get with it.

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FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN: Something movie critics recognize but would rather not deal with is the widening gulf between which movies get great reviews and which movies people actually see every weekend. And yet there is an upside. While everyone heads out to The Grudge and Meet the Fockers, your video store is filling up with discoveries - so many your bookstore is full of guides dedicated to overlooked and unappreciated films.

The tastiest new one is Never Coming to a Theater Near You: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie by Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan (Public-Affairs, $25). And a staple of these books is Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man (New Video, $26.95), newly available on DVD and handled with great care. Filmed in 1963, it captures the moment before the civil rights era exploded. But it hasn't aged a minute.

It tells the story of a railroad worker who falls for a preacher's daughter and quietly decides to abandon the timid, eyes-down respect for white men that he'd been taught. Independently made (because no studio would touch it) and truly powerful, it's a forerunner of the casual, workaday dramas that crawl their way out of the Sundance festival every winter.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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