Dante Lam has been hitting it out of the park recently with his two fantastic crime thrillers “The Stool Pigeon” and “The Beast Stalker”. Once again teamed up with his latest muse (or whatever the male equivalent of a muse is) Nic Tse, I approached this Action romp with great excitement, albeit aware of the somewhat mixed reviews. In the final analysis, it is a somewhat flawed diamond, but one I can admire very much indeed.
“The Viral Factor” follows the trials of International Policeman (and yeah, I have no idea what that means either, but this certainly is not a film that is going for the realism vibe) Jon Man (Jay Chou). We initially meet him attempting to extricate a scientist who has managed to weaponise Smallpox from Jordan. The mission goes to hell when the team is betrayed by Sean (Andy On), which leaves Man’s ex-girlfriend, and fellow agent, (Bai Bing) dead, and himself with a bullet in the head that is going to kill him within two weeks. Attempting to put his affairs in order, he is shocked to discover that his mother has been hiding a big secret – his Father did not leave them a a young child, the reverse was true, and he has an older brother. Man then flies off to Malaysia to rediscover his family. However, the bother, Yeung (Nicolas Tse) turns out to be a rather nasty criminal, who is involved in the whole Smallpox scheme. When things go even more wrong, and Man’s niece is put in Danger, the two team up to save the day.
There is so much wrong with this movie. The plot is utter nonsense, paying scant regard to logic, relying on outrageous co-incidences – Man just continually happens to accidently bump into important players with no legwork whatsoever. He meets the new Virus expert (Ling Peng) on the plane, he walks into his long lost Father on the street, as well as his brother numerous times The more nitpicky side of me also blanched at the comic book science on display – you can’t just make and produce viruses as quickly as the film portrays. Not only that, but important plot threads are simply dropped. Hints are dropped about the relationship with his deceased ex-girlfriend who was stolen by his boss, but nothing comes of this at all. The initial betrayal by Sean is not only clumsy, but actually is not clear quite what has happened, and even then, it really does not result in any kind of payoff in the film’s conclusion. It is mentioned that Man’s condition will result in a continual loss of sensation followed by fatal paralysis, but other than a couple of rehabilitating headaches, nothing is done with this. The Doctor he meets on the plane suggests a specialist who can help, but again, it is never mentioned again. I could go on for ages, but I think you get the point.
I like Jay Chou. He is a fantastic musician, and I know he has charisma. He was easily the best thing about last years misjudged “Green Hornet”, and behind the camera he made one of my favourite films of all time (“Secret”). But I have to finally admit the guy just cannot act. He is really wooden, which sort of works here bearing in mind his condition, and this is maybe accentuated by the fact many of our other characters are hamming it up outrageously.
So far, so terrible right?
The thing is, the film is just a huge amount of fun!
The action scenes are fantastic, and although it is expensive for a Chinese film, it puts many Hollywood blockbusters to shame. Whilst the initial conflict scene is a little confused in terms of explaining the seeds of the story, the actual filming of it are exciting and tense, fully exploring the fog of conflict. Each set piece continues in this vein, providing all the crash, bang and wallop you could want from such a movie. The only let down is the final battle, which is somewhat underwhelming, and fizzles out with the most important things happening off camera.
Nicolas Tse is brilliant, his character is a pretty unpleasant guy (though the script keeps trying to justify him as having some kind of honour), and seems to be some kind of Mullet-wearing terminator – it has been a long time since I have seen anyone go through the physical punishment he does, and just gets up and keeps on going! But the script is smart enough to imbue his story with some complex emotions regarding his Father, Daughter, and his estranged Brother and Mother. Liu Kai-Chi is also brilliant as the gambling, wayward, but essentially decent Father, adding some much needed comedy, and it is a real shame when he is taken off the table.
Most other characters are just bland and underwritten – Andy On can make a great villain, but his scenes here are limited, and he never quite manages to be the great nemesis I think the film wants him to be. Bai Bing is given no time at all to excel before she takes a bullet in the forehead, and Ling Peng does what she can do as eye candy but instead of being a potential love interest, the plot just turns her into a Damsel in distress.
But you know what? Despite the flaws, this film is well worth watching – because it evokes that kind of exciting, slapdash, fun action film that Hong Kong used to produce in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Not only does it deliver in the action stakes, but it does have some nice moments between the characters that raises it just above the one dimensional levels. It is a popcorn movie, nothing more and nothing less, and in that regard it is superior. Check your brain in for a holiday just before you start watching, and it is a fun ride. For that reason alone it comes Highly Recommended. But if you cannot ignore the flaws of the film, your experience may well be lessened.