Globetrotting, gun toting, car chases, explosions: Dante Lam’s “The Viral Factor” has all the action-junkie goods and then some, including the most jaw-dropping scenes of plummeting in recent Hong Kong stunt choreography. The fates of two brothers on opposite sides of the law uniting against virus traffickers prove just as tragic as the protags’ destinies in Lam’s crimers “The Stool Pigeon” and “Beast Stalker,” but the helmer’s blockbuster ambitions, striving to make every move a money shot, relegate human drama to the backseat. Asian B.O. should be healthy and ancillary biz pandemic for Lam’s latest, released Stateside by China Lion.
In an operation to escort bacteriologist Kenner from Jordan to Norway, IDC agent Jon (Taiwan pop idol Jay Chou) and ex-fiancee Ice (Bai Bing) are betrayed and shot by fellow agent Sean (Andy Tien), who steals a deadly virus sample developed by Kenner. When told he’ll be paralyzed within two weeks, Jon returns to Beijing to visit his ailing mother (Elaine Jin). She bids him to find Man Yeung (Nicholas Tse), the elder son she abandoned 31 years ago, at the same time she ditched her compulsive gambler husband, Man Tin (Liu Kai-chi).
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Jon befriends virus specialist Dr. Rachel Kan (Lin Peng) on a flight to Kuala Lumpur to look for the brother he never knew. He finds Man Yeung at the airport, waiting to kidnap Rachel under Sean’s orders. Jon rescues Rachel and reconnects with his father and niece Champ (Crystal Lee). Despite begin a hardened criminal, Man Yeung must join forces with Jon to save Champ, Rachel and her mother from Sean’s ruthless scheme to profit from the virus.
Made on a $17 million budget with such Hollywood action trappings as far-flung locations and aerial and marine combat, the film feels bent on giving its investors their money’s worth. While the scenes in Jordan mimic American war films set in the Middle East, the production crew scores more original coups in Kuala Lumpur, switching slickly from the technical razzmatazz of helicopters threading their way around skyscrapers to savage mano-a-manos in gritty hellholes or wickedly tight spots. Gunfights and explosions are audaciously played out in real urban locations swarming with people and vehicles, all unfolding with high tension, without losing sight of continuity.
As suggested by the Chinese title, which means “uphill battle,” the action designed by Lam and intrepidly executed by stunt choreographer Chin Ka-lok has a velocity and a loose-canon recklessness that mirror the intense protags and their struggle to survive against the odds. Especially striking are the frequency and variety of ways in which characters fall from lethal heights — a visual metaphor for Lam’s recurring themes of guilt, suffering and atonement, just as the Man family’s physical handicaps (especially Jon’s impending paralysis) symbolize their inner dysfunction.
Auds riveted by the meticulous plotting and psychological depth of “Beast Stalker,” “Fire of Conscience” or “The Stool Pigeon” may be disappointed with this pic’s head-spinning pace and impatience with storytelling. The screenplay by Lam and Jack Ng, who also contributed to Lam’s last three efforts, is strictly utilitarian. An early flashback to Jon’s relationship with Ice is arguably the shortest love story ever told, and Jon’s gradual compromise of his principles as a law enforcer in favor of blood ties is not crafted enough to constitute a moving emotional journey. In Lam’s world, women usually serve as men’s conscience; here, they function merely as hostages.
Since limited time is allotted to meaningful verbal exchange, the thesps have to condense highly charged feelings into a few closeups or reaction shots. Still, they manage to pack some emotional punch into a few key scenes. Tse practically grabs the pic from Chou (who looks perpetually dumbstruck) and runs away with it; Lam is expert at portraying desperadoes, and Tse fits the role like a glove, wearing the precariousness and fatigue of existence on his face like scars. Liu, a Lam regular, turns up the intensity a few notches whenever he’s around, while young Crytsal Lee is expressive beyond her years.
Chung Wai-chiu’s breakneck editing gives the impression of one long series of jump cuts, while Kenny Tse’s lensing works the camera like a SWAT team, yielding maximum swooping and swerving from helicopter shots. Peter Kam’s thundering score would be better suited for intergalactic battles, and in general, the dynamic sound effects keep the viewer perpetually on edge. Other tech credits are top-flight.