Following the explosive original and the very different but equally enjoyable prequel, this conclusion to the tangled story of moles among Hong Kong's cops and triads is a full helping of nice individual moments in search of a dramatically satisfying whole. "Infernal Affairs III" will have its largest audience in the West in boxed sets on ancillary.

Just as many Hong Kong movies fall apart in the third act, so the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy goes seriously awry in its concluding leg. Following the explosive original and the very different but equally enjoyable prequel, this conclusion to the tangled story of moles among Hong Kong’s cops and triads is a full helping of nice individual moments in search of a dramatically satisfying whole. Essential viewing for auds hooked into the cycle, but utterly confusing to any newcomers, “Infernal Affairs III” will have its largest audience in the West in boxed sets on ancillary.

On home turf, where it was released Dec. 12, only a year after the original movie, “III” took a very tasty HK$30 million ($3.9 million), after iffy reviews prompted the 108-minute cut to be replaced in theaters by the present 117-minute version. Between them, “II” and “III” managed a combined gross exactly equal to the original’s humongous $7 million, making a total of $14.2 million for the whole cycle. Not bad for a trilogy rapidly spun off a movie never intended to have sequels, and in which several of the major players ended up dead.

Whereas “II” ditched the nervous, gritty look of the original and went for a more neutral look, “III” has a clean, rather icy pallor. Storywise, “II” filled in the original’s backstory, focusing on the two leads as young men during 1991-97; “III” reintroduces the original’s lead stars and largely shuttlecocks between just before and just after the main story of the first film, which was mostly set in 2002.

Pic opens soon after the close of the original, with Insp. Lau Kin-ming’s (Andy Lau) killing of another cop ruled legal, and the latter believed to be the mole of triad boss Sam Hon (Eric Tsang). With the case seemingly closed, Lau (Hon’s real mole) can relax, and he’s reinstated at Internal Affairs as a senior inspector.

Enter a newcomer to the cast, Yeung Kam-wing (Leon Lai), a cool, controlled type, who works in the Security Wing and is setting up a drugs bust. Yeung is also charged with ferreting out more of Hon’s moles. So Lau can’t relax too much after all.

However, the police seem to be focusing on Yeung himself as a possible mole. Yeung was photographed with Shen (Mainland thesp Chen Daoming, the emperor in Zhang Yimou’s “Hero”), a ruthless-looking dude with an all-black wardrobe who is a friend of Hon.

Via the first of copious flashbacks, Hon is shown meeting with Shen, who reps China triads wanting to invest in the Hong Konger’s biz. But Hon is suspicious of the Mainlander muscling in.

Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), one of the original film’s main protags who’s working undercover in Hon’s gang, leaks information on the Hon-Shen meeting to H.K. cop Wong (Anthony Wong). In a sequence which equals but doesn’t surpass a similar one in the first film, Hon and Shen are hauled in by Yeung and there’s a tense standoff in police HQ. Chan’s cover is protected, though it’s not clear whether Yeung knows Chan is actually a police mole.

Unlike “II,” which focused more on the mechanics of duty and honor among crims, “III” returns to the atmosphere of mutual suspicion on both sides of the fence.

Midway, the script seems to temporarily run out of gas, reintroducing the character of a shrink, Lee Sum-yee (Kelly Chan), with whom Chan had enjoyed moments of respite from his deep-cover life during the first film. Though providing some agreeably light moments, these sequences strain to make the female doc a pivotal figure between the two moles, Chan and Lau, as well as totally confusing auds as to where they are in the story, or even in what time-frame.

When pic returns to the main plot at the 80-minute mark, there’s a growing sense of the writers thrashing around to provide a finale. This finally comes, though in bits and pieces, capped by an endless series of datelines (“seven months later,” etc.) that’s borderline self-parody.

In fact, there’s a strong sense that writers Alan Mak and Felix Chong are deliberately playing around with something they have invented and can’t quite work out what to do with. Pic would take several viewings and hours of computer time to figure out whether the plot actually makes sense: “III” is best experienced as a free riff on the previous two movies, not as a grand climax to the trilogy. From that perspective, there’s actually a kind of sadness at the end that we’re never again going to spend time with characters we’ve come to know and love across some five hours.

As the titular main protags, Leung and Andy Lau are OK as the two moles, without adding anything new. Wong, so good in the first two films, is unfortunately shortchanged here; it’s Tsang as the shifty, mercurial Hon who emerges as the trilogy’s major delight. Of the rest, Lai is well cast as the clinical Leung and Chen Daoming brings some acting heft to the main Mainlander, Shen. Tech credits are at their smoothest, though far from the striking originality of the first movie.

Infernal Affairs III

Hong Kong - China

Production

A Media Asia release of a Media Asia Films/Tianjin Film Studio presentation, in association with Eastern Dragon Film Co./China Megastar, of a Basic Pictures production, in association with China Film Coproduction Corp. (International sales: Media Asia, Hong Kong.) Produced by John Chong, Han Hongfei. Executive producers, Andrew Lau, Gao Fengjun. Co-producers, Ma Baoping, Wong Gam-man. Directed by Andrew Lau, Alan Mak. Screenplay, Mak, Felix Chong.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Lau, Ng Man-ching; editors, Danny Pang, Pang Ching-hei; music, Chan Kwong-wing; art director, Bill Lui; costume designer, Silver Cheung; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang; action director, Wong Wai-fai; assistant director, Chin Man-kei. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 8, 2004. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau, Leon Lai, Chen Daoming, Kelly Chen, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Chapman To, Wu Yanhua, Yin Zhiqiang, Huang Zhizhong, Lee Chi-hung, Sammi Cheng, Carina Lau, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue, Lam Ka-tung. (Cantonese and Mandarin dialogue)
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