1 Hr., 55 Mins.
Infernal Affairs February 6, 2020
nternal Affairs” (1990) at first seems poised to be a refreshing anomaly in the cop-thriller genre — a movie just as much interested in offering pulpy fun as criticism. It seems specifically intent on narrowing in on how endemic corruption can become in powerful institutions like law enforcement, and how significant the ramifications can be the longer it goes unchecked. But eventually, the film, which is set in the early-
1990s Los Angeles Police Department milieu, becomes simplistic — scuzzy, even. The beloved, unscrupulous veteran cop at the center of it all (Richard Gere) becomes increasingly bad in a rather incoherent way — a Disney villain in a movie for adults. After a while, the internal-affairs agent pursuing him (Andy Garcia) seems less concerned about the socially damaging sins being perpetuated and more with a personal thirst for revenge.
The Gere character, the salt-and-peppered Dennis Peck, starts the film textbook amoral: planting evidence, making deals with criminals, romancing the wives of his co-workers. He has a bunch of ex-wives and eight kids, with a ninth on the way; characters wonder how he supports them all on his salary, which decidedly can’t do just that. The Garcia character, the comically no-nonsense Raymond Avila, seems close enough to a stand-up guy of the classic-Hollywood mold. He’s humorless because he can’t laugh when he knows nebulous-but-definitely-there corruption is going on. When he’s brought in at the beginning of the film to investigate a puzzling drug bust “resolved” by Peck and his cocaine-addicted, domestically abusive partner Van Stretch (William Baldwin), he, as it probably goes with all his other gigs, gets all one-track minded. He stops paying attention to his wife, Kathy (Nancy Travis), who works in the art world; though he gets along with his cutting, smart partner Amy Wallace (Laurie Metcalf), who is the best character in the film.
Early scenes in the movie are efficient — able and entertaining rehashes of the age-old good-cop/bad-cop dichotomy. It’s like watching an inspired primetime-TV procedural. But as the feature progresses, it feels less and less interested in maintaining its sufficient enough realism. Van Stretch is clearly addicted to drugs and even casually drops the N-word during a standard meeting with Wallace and another higher-up, for instance. But he faces no immediate repercussions. This hardly register. Yet other characters who do far more innocuous things (e.g., a younger officer taking out some anger on a piece of office furniture) are immediately dealt with.
Perhaps these examples work together to make a simulacrum — there to say that, in law enforcement, some things that should be harshly dealt with are not, while other matters that don’t have to be harshly dealt with are nonetheless harshly dealt with. But in this movie, it’s out of sync with the supposed rigidity of the department’s upper echelons. And once the loyalties of the characters change — like Peck deciding that he’s going to toy with Avila just like other younger officers (by allegedly sleeping with Kathy) with no real outcome in mind, like Avila deciding to get extra aggressive in his bringing Peck to justice because of the wife thing rather than the corruption — the movie wanders and further loses sight of its own ethical sense. Late in the movie, Avila verbally humiliates and then hits Nancy in a restaurant — something the film treats as an excusable explosion that doesn’t need to be addressed any further. The movie is cheaply enjoyable until it isn’t anymore. As the characters become fuzzier, more caricatured, and as the film starts leaning more into neuroses than the moral uprightness it at first deems all-important, the more bloated and improbable it gets.
“Internal Affairs” is reminiscent of William Friedkin’s deranged crooked-cop actioner “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), which was about a secret-service agent (William Petersen) who bends the law to his whims — with growing craze — to avenge the violent death of his partner. But what that film got right, as far as indictment-driven police thrillers go, was that it emphasized that basically everyone in it was unprincipled and abusive of their powers. It doubled as a horror movie. “Internal Affairs,” by contrast, doesn’t untangle the thorniness of its moral complications. It’s built around a good-cop/bad-cop ethos suitable for a way simpler movie. “Internal Affairs” is almost bracingly polemical — then it loses its spirit. C