(2012)3.5Jason BuchananDirector Dante Lam alternates between syrupy family melodrama and exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat chases in The Viral Factor, an intense thriller that makes up for its distinct lack of originality by delivering smartly directed, expertly paced action for two solid hours. With prominent themes of family estrangement, honorable thieves, and police corruption often overshadowing the central plot, The Viral Factor sports all the telltale tropes of your typical Honk Kong action flick. But Lam's stylistic, occasionally surreal flourishes elevate this ambitious effort well above the average shoot-'em-up, resulting in a wild ride that brings to mind vintage John Woo.
As the story begins, International Disease Commission leader Sean (Andy Tien) and his team are in Jordan, escorting a scientist who has recently succeeded in mutating the smallpox virus, when their heavily armed convoy suddenly comes under attack. In the midst of the ensuing gun battle, key operative Jon (Jay Chou) takes a bullet to the head. Unable to remove it due to its delicate position in his brain, doctors inform Jon that he has just two weeks to live. Later, as Jon returns home to spend his dying days with his elderly, invalid mother, he learns that he has an older brother in Malaysia, and that his mother had abandoned his sibling and their father due to the latter's gambling addiction. Determined to reunite his family before he dies, Jon travels to Malaysia and befriends brilliant doctor Rachel (Lin Peng), and he later tracks down his father, his brother Yang (Nicholas Tse), and Yang's precocious daughter Champ (Crystal Lee). But Jon's belated family reunion is suddenly interrupted when the former IDC operative and his criminal sibling are swept up in a scheme to profit from the deadly new strain of smallpox, and they end up on the run from dirty cops as the criminal masterminds behind the plot kidnap Rachel and Champ in a bid to ensure their diabolical plot won't be foiled.
It's been said that every story worth telling has already been told; if this is true, it's a good thing we've got storytellers like Dante Lam to make them feel fresh and exciting again. Broken down to its core elements, The Viral Factor is little more than a pastiche of action-movie clichés. Put them in the hands of a filmmaker with the talent to write a tight, briskly paced screenplay and deliver white-knuckle action set pieces with stylistic flair, however, and plot elements that have lost their effectiveness due to overexposure manage to somehow regenerate their power to thrill. Lam fills The Viral Factor with so many different kinds of chases (on foot, by car, in a train, in helicopters), and delivers them with such flamboyant confidence, that all we can do as an audience is sit back and trust that he's able to keep control of this runaway bullet train. And though the teary sentimentality (not to mention the fact that a child is repeatedly put in harm's way) may be too much for some viewers to tolerate, the methods Lam uses to bring the story full circle both thematically and visually cement his competence as both a writer and director. His actors, meanwhile, deliver solid performances across the board, with Chou and Tse especially effective as the estranged brothers who have quite a bit more in common than initial appearances suggest. American moviegoers who enjoyed Chou's fun performance in 2011's underwhelming comic-book adaptation The Green Hornet owe it to themselves to give The Viral Factor a look and discover what a strong leading man he really is.
Speaking of American moviegoers, despite the fact that most of the dialogue in The Viral Factor is in Cantonese, there's enough English spoken in the film to warrant notice for viewers who generally avoid subtitles. If it weren't for the words on the bottom of the screen, Lam's film could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood action blockbuster, and while that may sound like an insult to some, in this particular case it's intended as a compliment.
Dying IDC agent Jon (Jay Chou) teams up with his long-lost criminal sibling Yang (Nicholas Tse) to rescue Yang's daughter Sheng and kindly medical specialist Rachel (Lin Peng) from kidnappers in Southeast Asia.