Director: Dante Lam
Writer: Dante Lam, Jack Ng
Producer: Candy Leung
Cast: Jay Chou, Nicholas Tse, Bai Bing, Lee Byung Hun, Lin Peng, Jung Woo-sung, Andy On Chi Kit, Carl Ng Ka Lung, Liu Kai Chi, Elaine Kam Yin Ling, Sammy Hung Tin Chiu, Patrick Keung Hiu Man
Running Time: 120 min.
“The Viral Factor” is the latest blockbuster from Dante Lam, a man who has become one of Hong Kong’s premiere action director thanks to films like “Fire of Conscience” and “The Stool Pigeon“; it was also the first film to enter Lam into the One Hundred Million Yuan Club, for those filmmakers who earn over 100 Million Yuan at the Chinese box office. I wish I could say this was one of Lam’s better efforts. Despite a globe-hopping setting and plenty of explosions, “The Viral Factor” fails to deliver as a solid piece of action entertainment. The story just does not hold up to any kind of scrutiny.
The screenplay makes the crucial mistake of dolling out exposition to the viewer before the credits have barely finished rolling. We’re told why characters are important and why what they’re doing is important, but we’re never shown why they’re important. The film begins with a confusing series of scenes set in Jordan, as an international police force led by the Chinese (including Jay Chou) are transporting a key scientist to safety before his deadly strain of bird flu can be released to the public…or something like that.
It doesn’t take long for everything to go tits up, and here we get to see Dante Lam’s approximation of a “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” video game battle in what is, in all honesty, probably the best set-piece in the entire movie. Questionable CG-fireballs aside, Dante Lam knows how to carefully maneuver his camera through action sequences that feel like barely controlled chaos. From there, Jay Chou heads off to Malaysia to track down his missing brother, played by bad boy actor Nichols Tse, and possibly get revenge on the team leader who betrayed him (an under-utilized Andy On). The story plays out in a confusing mix of English and Cantonese dialogue, a sure sign that the producers were trying too hard for a hit.
Dante Lam’s films have always been about his character’s personal lives and family melodrama as much as the action, but here he’s stuck with the borderline-catatonic Jay Chou in the lead, an actor who barely knows how to convey emotion. Let’s face it, Jay Chou is a Taiwanese pop idol; he’s not the kind of guy to headline a hard-hitting Hong Kong action movie. Nicholas Tse is forced to pick up the acting slack, which he does by sinking his teeth into scenes where he’s allowed to do nothing but cry or over-emote. Considering how many helicopters were likely blown up in the making of “The Viral Factor,” this is one touchy-feely movie.
I never thought I’d say a movie has too much action but the problem with “The Viral Factor” is that the screenplay doesn’t really know how to raise the stakes, so characters are always chasing after each other with little to no consequences. As I watched this movie, I felt a curious sense of detachment: actors raced around locales and tried to accomplish goals the movie had only barely communicated to me. I enjoy seeing Dante Lam playing on such a large scale, with this much production muscle behind him, but next time he needs to expend it all on a better script.
The story builds to a showdown aboard a large sea vessel, with a shootout occurring in-between shipping containers. Thanks but we’ve seen this before before in Tsui Hark’s “Knock-off” and that was staged with a hell of a lot more aplomb than what we get here. I still have nothing but respect for Dante Lam, but with “The Viral Factor” he simply went too mainstream. It was most likely a mistake to go for a story with this many characters and locations, and it was definitely a mistake to cast someone like Jay Chou in the lead. With no true hand-to-hand combat and most of the shoot-outs staged like video game cutscenes, “The Viral Factor” is missing that visceral touch that makes the best Hong Kong action movies so personal.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 5.5/10