Movie Review – The Viral Factor (2012)
Surprisingly watchable if your brain is on a two month vacation, Dante Lam’s The Viral Factor attempts to blend familial drama more suited to TV soap operas with a rather time-worn plot featuring a deadly virus that potentially could wipe out millions. The movie simply looks great, a result of a much expanded budget that unshackles Lam to really pull out all the stops and crank up the action to stratospheric levels. However, while technically the film is sound you can’t help but constantly slap your forehead at the huge leaps in logic that the script forces upon viewers, more specifically the thousands of times where mere coincidence and dumb luck rule the day.
Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou plays an international agent named Jon who starts the film tasked with providing bodyguard support to a defecting biochemist who has created a mutated smallpox virus that has the potential to kill millions. Unfortunately for Jon he and his team and betrayed by one of their own and in the process not only does the biochemist get kidnapped but Jon and his former lover are shot through the head killing her instantly and leaving him with a bullet lodged in his brain.
Flash-forward three months and the primary antagonist is on the cusp of concluding a deal to sell the virus and the antidote when out of the blue the biochemist escapes only to be run over by an errant driver forcing the villain to find another way to complete his work on time. Meanwhile, a recovering Jon is told the bad news that though the medical staff have tried their best that his future is bleak and that he realistically only has two weeks to live or at least function naturally because in that short period of time his swelling brain combined with the lodged bullet will essentially cause him to become paralyzed for life.
By now one realizes that the plot seems to be rote yet uncomplicated but Lam decides that this isn’t enough and crafts a parallel narrative that reveals by way of his mother that Jon actually has an older brother and that she basically left him to rot with his father over twenty years ago. One might get the impression that this isn’t so complicated yet it is quickly revealed that this lost brother (Nicholas Tse) is actually a cold-hearted killer who is working to help the antagonist complete his plan for the virus.
At first glance this harkens to John Woo movies of old and how he was infatuated with brothers both genetic and metaphorical who reside on both sides of the law that eventually meet and have to team up for the greater good. This is exactly how the plot unfolds here in The Viral Factor and for the most part it is actually the strongest part of the film as both Jay Chou and Nicolas Tse attempt to figure out the other and whether or not trust can be formed. However, their bonding scenes often times are cut short by errant action or flat-out truncated focus so it tends to drag the pace into the floor rather than provide genuine sparks that excite. In fact long tracks of the film are quite sedate in tone as Lam attempts to delve deeper and explore some of these familial issues yet while kudos has to go to him for trying, the issue here is that he manages to only skim the surface of what should be a very explosive meeting between the two long lost brothers.
A bigger issue though is the haphazard construction of the actual narrative which pulls out all the stops to create scene after scene of pure bewilderment mainly because of Lam’s overreliance on the plot device of mere coincidence. Modern audiences are usually not so demanding in that they will often cut a director some leeway whenever they are confronted with contrived situations yet Lam really pushes the envelope of good will here as it becomes the de facto method of ramming these two characters together. In other words while most can cut Lam some slack for initially throwing these brothers into contact out of pure luck the issue becomes that it repeats over and over again so that both these characters always manage to bump into one another at exactly the right time. It becomes so ridiculous that one can’t help but wonder if God himself/herself is purposely manipulating destiny as these heroes meet, part, meet, part and meet in a never ending temporal loop.
If there is one thing that audiences are sure to remember outside of the film’s reliance on narrative coincidence is that here is a perfect example of actors who firmly rest on two polar extremes with one completely relying on underplaying his character while the other decides to focus on histrionics with maniacal facial contortions and a propensity to mug for the camera at every opportunity. I don’t really need to identify who is who as it is plainly obvious based on their past work but I will say that for once this huge dichotomy in acting styles actually suits the film well as it clearly delineates how different these characters have matured due to totally dissimilar environments.
Unfortunately, while our two heroes totally dominate screen time the supporting cast is woefully underdeveloped except for perhaps Andy On as the main antagonist who at least comes off menacingly enough to present a decent adversary yet he too is saddled with huge tracts of expository dialogue including one near hilarious scene at the beginning of the film where he is briefing his team of agents about their current mission. This wouldn’t be so bad yet for some inexplicable reason he does so right in the middle of what is basically a parking lot instead of something more appropriate like a briefing room that is surely located in the building right next to him. At the same time Andy On is forced to switch to English for the entire monologue and it comes off as completely stilted and unnatural.
In addition some of the subplots don’t even get out of neutral such as the entire back-story of how Jon “lost” the love of his life to one of his co-workers who stole her heart. It’s merely revealed as a kind of kick to Jay Chou’s character yet it is never again brought up at all even though his co-worker remains faithful to him throughout the entire film.
Other cast members such as Lin Peng as Rachel, the resident damsel in distress, does not have enough scenes to establish her motivation and is instead merely a prop to be thrown around by the narrative whenever it is required to place her in peril. Keung Ho-Man as a corrupt cop is simply hilariously over the top, drunkenly bouncing from one scene to the next plus it doesn’t help that visually he looks like a ghetto bum who has been snorting things that no man or animal should.
As a special note Dante Lam decides quite inexplicably to utilize CG in some odd situations and unfortunately falls right into the same gaping hole that others like Tsui Hark have recently plunged into as well when they create sequences with special effects that have no merit whatsoever. The Viral Factor begins with a wholly CG sequence depicting a camera view looking up from under water. At first glance this scene harkens back to good old Billy Wilder’s magnificent Sunset Boulevard showing what quickly becomes apparent as a floating body from a low angle beneath the waves as an omnipresent narrator informs the audience as to what is going on. The feel and influence is the same yet Dante Lam decides to one up the master by making the entire sequence CG and includes various toys that sink from the surface deep into the ocean.
Why? Who knows but it’s incredibly distracting and though it is revealed as a dream sequence one can’t help but wonder if all the money spent trying to create a visually impressive opening sequence bolsters the emotional effect more than dumping a real camera into a pool like Wilder did all those years ago. To be fair the sequence does make some sense especially when the ending is revealed yet even here the payoff only comes if one knows Wilder’s superior film. Considering the film’s target audience I have a suspicion that most will have no clue what Lam is attempting.
While the action is certainly done well with a plethora of car and foot chases one can’t help but notice how many times our heroes get perforated by bullets that don’t seem to affect them more than inducing wincing and the numerous instances where people fall from great heights that turn normal human beings into spaghetti paste yet here everyone winces some more and then runs away. I can understand elements like this if I were watching a wuxia martial arts film such as Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate but at least there it is expected that our heroes and heroines can pull off crazy stunts like fighting up through a howling tornado but here in The Viral Factor the movie is wholly grounded in reality making moments when people survive a six story jump completely ridiculous.
Still if it is action you desire then the film more or less doesn’t disappoint although it must be said that what is here is nothing remotely original. The fact that the sequences are arresting falls more to Lam’s skill as a director as there are some truly inspired camera setups and long overhead tracking shots especially through crowded roadways right in the middle of downtown Kuala Lumpur that look spectacular. Take these out and the actual scenes don’t go beyond standard fare although the actual melee combat is edited well enough that one can virtually feel the brutality behind every kick and punch.
In some ways The Viral Factor harkens back to the more physically demanding martial arts films of yore and especially to old school Hong Kong moviemaking exemplified perhaps best by Jackie Chan in that virtually all the stunt work is real and not CG enhanced. This works wonders for the film and really showcases the fact that no amount of CG trickery can ever match the pure beauty of human movement. Props go to Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse for basically doing nearly all their own stunt work as it gives the film a truly visceral feel that most Hollywood action yarns now lack.
As Chinese/Hong Kong cinema matures and budgets increase there is no doubt that the industry is beginning to get a strong second wind due to the burgeoning Mainland Chinese market and as a result films like The Viral Factor benefit from excellent production values. In some ways, these films seem even grander than Hollywood fare merely because the local dollars go further than American productions. Case in point is the wonderfully shot helicopter chase through downtown Kuala Lumpur where the copters actually fly incredibly low as they weave their way around buildings. One expects that if Hollywood did this nowadays that it would be almost all CG to ensure nothing goes wrong. However, there is no CG trickery here in The Viral Factor and the helicopters really are carefully navigating through the concrete jungle elevating the sequence immensely and providing audiences with an unmatched visual thrill.
Nevertheless, while expanding budgets are a great phenomenon it still doesn’t mean that filmmakers should turn their focus away from competent logical narratives instead of visual acumen. The Viral Factor isn’t going to win any awards beyond technical categories but one hopes that Dante Lam and other Chinese filmmakers focus more on creating compelling plots with solid characterization instead of relying on hackneyed melodrama and ridiculous contrivances.
** out of ****
2012, China, 122 Min, Emperor Motion Pictures
Directed by Dante Lam
Written by Dante Lam, Candy Leung, Wai Lun Ng
Produced by Candy Leung
Executive Producer Albert Yeung
Co-Producer Albert Lee, Solon So, Wang Zhonglei
Original Music by Peter Kam
Cinematography by Kenny Tse
Jay Chou: Jon
Nicholas Tse: Man Yeung
Bai Bing: Ice
Andy On: Sean Wong
Lin Peng: Rachel
Liu Kai-Chi: Man Tim
Crystal Lee: Champ
Elaine Kam: Jon’s Mother
Keung Ho-Man: IDC Officer
© 2012 The Galactic Pillow