Hong Kong action maestro Dante Lam directed his first film some 15 years ago, which means he has reached the point of his career where he is in constant danger of repeating himself.
The Viral Factor deals with that issue head-on by setting its story in fresh locations. Starting off in Jordan and then moving to Malaysia, where it spends the balance of its time, The Viral Factor is a movie that prizes its action sequences above the domestic conflicts that simmer and occasionally boil over. To some extent, the old-fashioned melodrama from the ‘heroic bloodshed’ school drives the narrative; at its core, it’s about acceptance and reconciliation, about putting family ahead of principles, above the ties that bind unto death — and beyond.
“Old-fashioned” also describes the structure, which ultimately keeps The Viral Factor from becoming a bonafide superior film; it seems as though Lam and his collaborators devised the action sequences first and then built a story to link them. (Lam, who has received a “story by” credit for his previous four films, here steps up to screenplay credit, shared with frequent writing partner Wai Lun Ng; Lam and producer Candy Leung share the “story by” credit.)
That time-honored method makes perfect sense, and provides an opportunity for Lam to create one truly spectacular action sequence — involving an exhausting foot chase that leads to a helicopter hijacking and jaw-dropping multi-copter pursuit buzzing low over downtown Kuala Lumpur (really, you need to see it) — surrounded by multiple very strong ones; it all makes for above-average entertainment. Lam is perfectly comfortable painting on a bigger canvas than he has in the past, and has no trouble filling the screen with exciting action.
It’s in the dramatics that motivation, character development, and common sense are knee-capped. Government agent Jon (Jay Chou) is shot in the head while in Jordan on a mission to transport a scientist who is threatening to unleash a virus unless his demands are met. The scientist is kidnapped by Sean (Andy On), a member of Jon’s team who has sold out to a powerful criminal; they’ve hatched a plan to spread the virus first throughout the world and then withhold the cure unless the world’s governments pay up.
When Jon wakes up, it’s confirmed that his entire team (including his fiancee) was wiped out by Sean and his traitorous comrades; adding to the bad news, Jon is told that doctors cannot operate on him and the bullet in his head will kill him within a short time. He heads home to his elderly, dying mother, who begs him to go to Malaysia and reconcile with his estranged father Man Tin (Liu Kai-Chi). Oh, and also, er, his mother says, tears streaming down her face, by the way, you have a brother too. It seems that Jon’s mom and dad had a bitter split, and since then Man Tin and long-lost brother Man Yeung (Nicholas Tse) have followed a criminal path.
As it happens, Malaysia is where Sean heads to kidnap Rachel (Lin Peng), the only scientist in the world who can put the finishing touches on the virus since, er, the original scientist was steamrolled by a truck when he ran out into the road while escaping from Sean’s seriously incompetent gang. The coincidences pile up quickly, so quickly that they would make Charles Dickens blush.
But Charles Dickens never was very good with helicopters, speeding trains, clanging gun battles, and ship-board shoot-outs. Dante Lam is an action architect; in The Viral Factor, the foundation is not strong enough to survive the closing credits, but while it lasts, it looks remarkably good.