Film Review: The Viral Factor

Action trumps plot in Hong Kong director Dante Lam's latest thriller about brothers fighting the release of a mutant smallpox virus.

Exciting but not very credible, The Viral Factor teams two estranged brothers against a tycoon trying to unleash a mutant smallpox virus on the world. Jaw-dropping action scenes help compensate for a storyline that's alternately far-fetched and maudlin. Genre fans will ignore the plot to concentrate on the stunts; mainstream viewers are more likely to ignore the film entirely.

The opening finds cops Jon (Jay Chou, stiffer than necessary) and Sean (Andy Tien) part of a security detail in Jordan guarding a scientist who has developed a mutant smallpox strain. They are attacked while transporting the scientist and his family out of the country, a ten-minute chase and shootout that equals many Hollywood films in audacity and scope. Jon ends up harboring a bullet in his skull that will paralyze and kill him within weeks; Sean turns out to be a traitor who kidnaps the scientist to Malaysia.

The script, by director Dante Lam and his longtime collaborator Jack Ng, keeps piling on twists. Visiting his mother in Beijing, Jon learns that he has a brother in Malaysia. It's his mother's dying wish that her family be united, so Jon heads to Kuala Lumpur, meeting viral expert Rachel Kan (Lin Peng) along the way.

A second storyline introduces Jon's long-lost brother Man Yeung (a flamboyant, commanding Nicholas Tse), who breaks out of a heavily guarded courthouse after receiving a long prison sentence. Yeung returns to his adorable daughter Champ (Crystal Lee) and his father Tin (Lam mainstay Liu Kai-chi), a crippled gambler. Although he wants to go straight, Yeung is dragged back into crime by a corrupt cop. Through a staggering series of coincidences, Yeung must kidnap Rachel and deliver her to the villains' lair so she can complete the murdered scientist's work and arm the tycoon with both virus and antidote.

Jon and Yeung operate at cross-purposes at first, with Jon trying to rescue Rachel when Yeung abducts her. Beset by both crooks and cops, with Champ's life at stake, and both Rachel and her mother pawns in the smallpox scheme, the brothers reluctantly team up to defeat the bad guys and recover the virus.

That's a lot of plot for one film, which also features hallucinatory scenes meant to represent Jon's deteriorating health, flashbacks about Tin's earlier downfall, and a recurring dream of drowning shared by both brothers and their mother. Lam tries to keep everything under control by ramping up action at every available opportunity. The Viral Factor is so over the top that it resembles a parody. The brothers shrug off bullet wounds, Taser attacks, three-story—heck, six-story falls, and live-action car crashes directors in Hollywood can only dream about.

Can Champ survive being tossed off a freighter in a plastic bag? Will Jon's brain seizures hold off long enough for him to catch Sean? Will Yeung get to see his mother again? Perhaps, but it will take an awful lot of stunt work first. One thing is clear: Dante Lam proves he can play with the big boys. In terms of cinematography, editing and action choreography, The Viral Factor is spectacular. Where the film suffers (unlike earlier Lam titles like Fire of Conscience and Beast Stalker) is in its ragged, hokey plotting.