The biggest action film of the Chinese New Year goes for Hollywood extravagance on a fraction of the budget, delivering globe-trotting adventures amidst a hail of bullets.
Dante Lam is a veteran of Hong Kong action films, making the successful transition from acting and action choreography to directing in 1997 with Option Zero. Winning Best Director a year later for Beast Cops, he has been consistently delivering well-researched and just as well-received action films for over a decade. So the global race against terrorism and germ warfare is right up Lam’s alley, as he brings all of his tricks to play in what star Jay Chou claims will be his last action film.
After a mission to protect a scientist working on a viral strain of the smallpox virus goes wrong, following the betrayal of agent Sean (Andy On), cop Jon Man (Jay Chou) is injured and his girlfriend Ice (Bai Bing) is killed. When doctors are unable to remove a bullet from his brain, Jon discovers he only has two weeks left to live, and decides to spend time with his disabled mother (Elaine Jin). Yet when she reveals that he has a long lost brother, Man Yeung (Nicholas Tse), who she left behind with his father, Man Tin (Liu Kai Chi), Jon sets off for Malaysia to find them both and bring them home. However, Jon soon discovers that his estranged sibling is involved in the same plot his former colleague Sean betrayed them over.
Unbelievable plot coincidences aside, Dante Lam knows his way around an action film. With an estimate budget of HK$200 million (US$25 million), The Viral Factor is one of the most expensive films in Hong Kong’ s history. What Lam manages to achieve on a fraction of an average Hollywood budget is nothing short of staggering, globe-trotting like the best Mission: Impossible films with locations that include Hong Kong, Xi’an, the Middle East, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Jordan and Singapore. Air plane and tanks were borrowed from the military for that authentic look, so that every bit of the kitchen sink was thrown in for what amounts to a fairly relentless actioner that is a textbook example of how to make a champagne explosion on a beer budget.
Plotting is incidental, and the merging of a viral threat with a classic “two brothers at odds” piece doesn’t always sit well. Indeed, from the moment the Jon’s brother is introduced to him, the whole threat of a viral outbreak is conveniently forgotten until the climactic scenes. Here the film falls back on the reliable narrative trick of placing a child is peril, and only the dramatic weight of the seasoned Tse and Chou can bring the adequate emotion weight to the melodrama.
The Viral Factor doesn’t so much overwhelm with giant set-pieces or clever moments of dangling off the sides of buildings, but rather tries to patch up any plot holes with perpetual motion, even in its somewhat bloated running time. The constant running and gunning may be spectacular, but drags in the middle. Yet Lam still manages to deliver some excellent sequences along the way, and if this is indeed Chou’s last action film, he would be hard-pressed to find another Hong Kong film of this scale.
The Viral Factor is released in Australia on 26 January 2012 from Dream Movie.