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Viral Factor, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Wants to be an old-fashioned action tragedy, but could try harder."
3 stars

"The Viral Factor" aims to be a throwback to the pre-Hollywood films of John Woo, combining stylish action with even grander melodrama. And while director Dante Lam likely has more in common with today's John Woo than the one who made "A Better Tomorrow", it's fun to see that type of movie again. It's a sort of action weepy, a bit more enjoyable than it deserves to be.

We open with an international task force including Sean Wang (Andy Tien), "Jon" Man Fei (Jay Chou), and his ex-girlfriend "Ice" (Bing Bai) smuggling a scientist who has bred a new strain of smallpox out of Jordan. This, of course, doesn't go well, with Jon losing one friend due to the other's betrayal. He has one of those ticking time bombs of a brain injury himself, but when his ailing mother informs him that there is news of his father and that he has a brother she never told him about, he immediately sets off for Malaysia. On the plane, he meets Dr. Rachel Kan (Lin Peng), who recommends a neurologist she knows, and once there, he not only reunites with father Man Tin (Liu Kai-chi) and niece "Champ" (Crystal Lee), but finds out that his brother Yeung (Nicholas Tse) is a criminal. Who, it turns out, is being hired by corrupt cop Russell (Philip Keung) and the people who took the biologist - and are having him create a new supervirus.

Almost all action movies try to connect with the audience emotionally by adding a subplot that makes things personal or has the hero dealing with something in his relationships or family. The Viral Factor takes this to an extreme, with the bioterrorists' plot not exactly being relegated a nuisance that interrupts Jon's attempts to bring his family together before it's too late, but still mainly pulling him in because despite being just-arrived in one of the most densely populated cities in Asia, Jon just happens to be connected to Rachel and Yeung for reasons entirely separate from the people who lodged a bullet in his head. The movie barely even tries to get any emotion out of the plot with global stakes until it threatens the Man family directly, although that's not unusual - millions could die in a global pandemic, but threaten the hero's family... It's a set of terrible clichés, but this movie owns them, to a certain extent, by focusing on what would logically be side-stories so closely. There's a Greek tragedy not far beneath the bullets and explosions, and the Man brothers coming face to face with everything in their lives up to this point.

And there are plenty of bullets and explosions piled on top. Lam is one of the more successful action directors in Hong Kong right now, and he packs The Viral Factor with a number of well-executed pieces, from the opening assault in Jordan to the finale on a freighter. It's often glossy, Hollywood-style action, with slow-motion CGI bullets, helicopter chases, and plenty of smash-ups in chases. Lam really seems to enjoy destroying cars, sending them flying through the air or blowing them up at every available opportunity. Still, even though the producers have invested in a large supply of squibs, the effectiveness of a bullet seems too low in some scenes, and Lam seems to do his best work when there's the least effects in the way - the two most memorable action scenes take place in close quarters, where there's just not enough room to do much more than set the camera up and watch the participants grapple.

The cast handles both ends of their job well enough. Jay Chou (whom western audiences will most likely remember as Kato in the Green Hornet movie) and Nicholas Tse both handle their melodramatic material without letting it make them look silly while their action scenes see them coolly capable without making to look too easy. Andy Tien and Bing Bai are each smooth in their own ways as Jon's one-time colleagues, and Philip Keung fits the role of an oily, corrupt cop to a T. Lin Peng handles a rather stock role well and Crystal Kee is as cute as one would expect as the niece.

Each individual element is handled fairly well, although it would be nice if some element or other were to jump out and wow us. The movie is at its best when it's a bit heightened, but aside from a swelling soundtrack, Lam and company don't embrace that as much as they could. Have Chou and Tse yell and beat their chests rather than being so restrained. Give us a couple more action scenes that are more exciting than one might expect rather than less. Both as an action movie and a melodrama, this movie should constantly be putting the screws to Jon and Yeung, but it instead seems a bit too content to just do what's expected of it.

And it does that stuff all right; there's some pretty good action beats and its operatic leanings make it at least a little more interesting than the typical pulp story with a nice gloss. It's got at least a little more going for it than the novelty of seeing a Hong Kong movie at the multiplex, even if it's not one of that industry's greats.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23344&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/22/12 00:43:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Dante Lam

Written by
  Dante Lam
  Candy Leung
  Wai Lun Ng

  Jay Chou
  Nicholas Tse
  Lin Peng
  Andy Tien
  Philip Keung
  Crystal Lee

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