Yes, I know. "Don't see Vanilla Sky; see Abre Los Ojos instead." "Star Wars? For Shame! A thin remake of Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress!". "The only Solaris I'd watch is the one made by Tarkovsky." These days, the snob appeal of saying that the original, foreign-language version of a film far surpasses its English-language remake is as irritating as it is obvious. You'd certainly think that this was a difficult case to make with "The Departed": a movie that won Best Film Oscar, had a cast to die for and was regarded as a notable return to form for no less a director than Martin Scorsese. But, damn it, it's true. The Infernal Affairs trilogy really is that good.
I don't want to beat The Departed with the dismembered leg of Infernal Affairs. They're both excellent movies, and the relationship between them is similar to that between Michael Mann's L.A. Takedown and his later remake Heat. That is to say, The Departed elaborates the basic story of Infernal Affairs and brings to it a powerhouse cast, yet adds surprisingly little. The main set pieces are all there in the original film, and the production standards for the Hong Kong trilogy are already superb. Nevertheless, there's a slight sense with Infernal Affairs that it is too much the successor to Woo's The Killer: everything is coldly balanced out so that the reflection of hero and villain is perfect. The Departed is very faithful, yet adds something in the way of complexity and depth.
Where Infernal Affairs surpasses the remake is that there are two other chapters: both essential to the developing picture of conflict, betrayal and guilt that is at the heart of the first film. The second film, which fleshes out the story of the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen in the remake, is a deep and thoughtful gangster movie that can certainly bear comparison with the best that Hollywood has offered in the same genre. The third film completes the story of the character later played by Matt Damon and is a clever game with the perceptions of the viewer as well as a satisfying resolution to the trilogy.
Together, the three films have a coherence and consistency to which most Hollywood trilogies struggle to aspire. The absence of the outstanding Andy Lau and Tony Leung from the second film (where their parts are taken by younger actors to reflect the flashback structure) does detract from proceedings slightly, but the superb supporting cast remains in place throughout, and the performances of Anthony Wong Chau-sang and Eric Tsang are especially noteworthy in all three films.
In the publicity for this boxed set a comparison is drawn between the Infernal Affairs trilogy and The Godfather trilogy. This isn't just hype. As with Coppola's masterpiece, there is a sense here that each film has a particular role in telling a wide-ranging story, and while I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that Infernal Affairs is quite as good, it remains head-and-shoulders above most Hollywood fare in the same genre.