Dirs: Andrew Lau, Alan Mak. Hong Kong. 2003. 114 mins.

With this kind of film, comparisons are inevitable. Infernal Affairs II (IA2) is both a companion piece to surprise hit thriller Infernal Affairs and, in style and substance, close to The Godfather series. Fortunately, it has the right looks and a meaty enough story to resiliently stand up to both tests. The first episode of Infernal Affairswas sold to Warner Bros in one of the highest priced remake deals of recent years, while Miramax recently clinched a deal to release the original film in North and South America, Italy and Spain. Both companies have options to take up their respective rights to IA2 and to the sequel due out at the end of the year. On this evidence, it would be astonishing if they did not exercise those options. IA2 confirms the promise and prowess that writing-directing team Andrew Lau Wai-Keung and Alan Mak Siu-Fai showed in their earlier film. That picture intrigued buyers around the world, but has not completely sold out. Canny distributors may now look to create Affairs theatrical seasons and should make hay with a complex, chronology-challenging trilogy that is sure to have a strong after-life on DVD.

IA2 takes place between 1991 and 1997 and explains the circumstances in which police and triads came to plant undercover agents in each other's organisations - the basic structure of Infernal Affairs. That film came from nowhere to become one of the finest-made Hong Kong pictures in recent years and one of its biggest BO earners. The combination of Hong Kong's top stars (Andy Lau Tak-Wah and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), directorial panache and a tightly-written script, allowed the first film to carry off the mantle of being an action flick with little action

The speedily-made, but still highly polished, prequel is denser in plot terms, stronger and bloodier of action and boasts more of an ensemble cast of next generation actors. After three weeks it is still top of the Hong Kong box office, having taken $2.8m from 60

The assassination of a triad boss creates a vacuum which throws the Kwun crime family into chaos. The ensuing and deadly power struggle sees the rise of a new character - the nerdish Hau (Francis Ng) and amiable but wily lieutenant Sam (Eric Tsang), who had a much more minor role in Part 1. To get closer to the action, police inspector Wong (Anthony Wong) sends youngster Yan (played by Shawn Yue in IA2 and Leung as an adult in Infernal Affairs) to burrow into Hau's structure. Simultaneously, Sam dispatches Ming (Edison Chen here and Lau as an adult) to enrol in Wong's anti-triad squad.

Over the next few years a series of betrayals and brutal eliminations takes place that is common to the mafia genre. But the genius of the interlocking moles structure is to blur the lines between good and bad and to equally embroil cops and gangsters in every cycle of violence.

Appropriately, the direction goes for more murk and more interior settings than the crisply lit Infernal Affairs, which at times seemed a parody of Enemy Of The State with its repetitive roof-top meetings against Hong Kong's high-tech skyline. It also gets away with occasional attempts at Godfather grandiose.

Although the plot is at times fiendishly complicated, the emphasis of IA2's script and direction is to allow characterisation to flourish, especially that of the adults. Wong and Tsang are magnificent and must now rank among Hong Kong's true stars, while Ng, Yu and popstar-turned-actor Chen are all strong. There is little place for women in this predominantly macho environment, but veteran Carina Lau also gets a critical subplot to herself and a chance to show her thespian credentials as the girlfriend of Sam and go-between with Wong. That duly earns her the most shocking death scene of the film.

Part 3 is reputedly stronger in terms of originality and dialogue and in chronological setting will wrap around Infernal Affairs; filling the gap between 1997 and Part 1 and then pick up again where Part 1 stopped. While that may be the end of the series, it is to be hoped that Mak and Lau join forces again on other projects.

Prod cos: Media Asia in association with Raintree Pictures, Eastern Dragon Film present a Basic Pictures production.
Prods: Andrew Lau, Ellen Chang, Lorraine Ho.
Exec prods: John Chong, Daniel Yun, Ma Baoping.
Int sales: Media Asia
Scr: Alan Mak, Felix Chong.
Cinematography: Andrew Lau, Ng Man-Ching.
Prod des: Bill Lui.
Eds: Danny Pang, Pang Ching-Hei.
Music: Chan Kwong-Wing.
Cast: Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Francis Ng, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue, Carina Lau and Hu Jun.