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Dante Lam, the current great hope of Hong Kong action cinema, returns with “The Viral Factor”, another slice of explosive, melodramatic mayhem. Following on from a mightily impressive run of critical and commercial hits including “The Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon”, the film sees the director upping the stakes considerably, having been given a comparatively huge budget of over HK$200 million to play with. This translates into a variety of international filming locations, top notch special effects and military hardware dedicated to blowing things up in spectacular fashion, not to mention an all-star cast headlined by two of the most popular actors in Asia, Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse.
The action kicks off in Jordan, with Jay Chou as IDC (the amusingly fictitious International Defense Commission) agent Jon, whose operation to snatch a scientist involved in the creation of a lethal virus goes wrong when fellow officer Sean Wong (Andy On, “True Legend”) goes rogue, leaving his fiancée Ice (Michelle Bai, “Shaolin”) dead and him with a bullet in the head. With his injury meaning that he could pretty much just drop dead at any time, Jon heads home to visit his mother (Elaine Kam), who informs him that his runaway father (Liu Kai Chi, “Turning Point 2”) and elder brother Man Yeung (Tse) are still alive and living in Kuala Lumpur. Jon hops on the next plane, only to get caught up again in the virus plot, with Man Yeung having been hired by Sean to kidnap scientist Rachel (newcomer Lin Peng) to help him create a vaccine before unleashing it. With the life of Man Yeung’s daughter Champ on the line, not to mention the safety of the world in general, the two brothers are forced to work together for the greater good.
It’s easy to see why “The Viral Factor” is such an exciting prospect, giving one of Hong Kong’s hottest genre helmers the chance to go toe to toe with Hollywood and to produce the kind of blockbuster spectacle rarely seen in Asian cinema. On this level, the film undoubtedly succeeds, with the top notch production values and international shooting locations, not to mention non-Asian actors who actually seem at least semi-professional for a change, giving it a lavish, suitably ambitious and epic feel. The action, choreographed by Lam and Chin Ka Lok is similarly stunning, packing in an amazing number of shoot outs, fights, car chases and explosions. The film is extremely loud and breathless throughout, barely pausing for thought between set pieces, with Lam again showing that few other directors have his style and creativity when it comes to controlled chaos. There’s plenty of blood and carnage along the way, and the overwhelming sense of destructiveness is helped by some decent use of convincing CGI effects and some excellent stunt work, the film going through a very respectable number of ruined cars.
Perhaps inevitably, the film’s single minded focus on its awesome action does mean that the plot and everything else suffers somewhat as a result. The script is muddled and rarely makes much sense, trying to combine conspiracy and family melodrama in convoluted fashion and showing an at times laughable reliance on unlikely coincidence. Whilst Lam certainly seems to have made an effort to add some kind of emotional impact, despite decent performances from both Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse, their dynamic and the film’s various relationships all fall a bit flat, partly due to being taken needlessly seriously when a touch of playfulness might have served better. Thankfully, Lam feeds the melodrama through in short mouthfuls and never lets it slow things down, the film hurtling along between its explosions at breakneck pace.
Ultimately, it’s on action and thrills that “The Viral Factor” should be judged, and on this score Dante Lam has delivered very much as promised, making fun and effective use of the film’s much mooted big budget. Although not as intense and gripping as “The Beast Stalker” or “The Stool Pigeon”, it’s easily the biggest and boldest Hong Kong thriller of the last couple of years, and despite its lapses in plot compares favourably with most Hollywood films of the same type.
Dante Lam (director) / Dante Lam, Candy Leung, Wai Lun Ng (screenplay)
CAST: Carl Ng … Ross