IDC Agent Jon (Jay Chou) sustains grave injuries on a mission and decides to spend his final days with his mother. She tells him a long-held secret. To fulfill her wishes, Jon goes to Southeast Asia and befriends medical specialist Rachel (Lin Peng). When Rachel is forced into the schemes of a criminal organisation, Jon attempts to rescue her but becomes the target of the organisation that includes his estranged brother, Yeung (Nicholas Tse). When the organisation betrays Yeung and kidnaps his daughter Sheng, the brothers join forces to rescue Rachel and Sheng.

Stunning action saves B-movie from preposterous plot.

Action fans will barely have time to draw a breath in Dante Lam’s frantic potboiler The Viral Factor, nor will they need to muster any coherent thought to enjoy the daft plotting or enormous leaps in logic; in fact, it’s best if you don’t think at all. With central characters steeped in classic B-movie friction (one can hear Voice-Over-Guy intone, 'One brother, a dedicated cop; the other, Hong Kong’s most wanted man") and entirely perfunctory subplots banged together to draw cheap tears during the inevitable coda, Lam and co-writer Jack Ng were clearly uninterested in anything other than delivering bang for their US$17 million budget.

The team’s reliance on dialogue is done with after five minutes, during which the assault commander explains the entire plot away while briefing his international unit on their mission: a new strand of smallpox has been developed and they must to get the scientist who can save the world out of a hotspot (not by helicopter, as you’d expect, but by car, through the winding roads of downtown Jordan). Our hero, Jon (Jay Chou, The Green Hornet), is left with a bullet in his head and minus a suitcase full of smallpox, now being shipped around to the highest bidder by agent-gone-bad, Sean (Andy On).

With his life-clock ticking ('The bullet is lodged inside your corpus callosum..."), Jon visits his mum (Elaine Jin) who very tearily informs him of his broken family history. This new information leads him to the wayward brother he never knew he had, Yeung (Nicholas Tse, the film’s biggest asset). A reluctant but effective crime figure forced into bad doings by an indebted father (Liu Kai-chi), Yeung discovers his angel-faced daughter has become currency when she’s cruelly infected with the virus by Sean; a race against time ensues, first to develop and administer the antidote, then stop the infectious killer from spreading throughout the world.

Lam stumbles with the syrupy stuff and stages his character interplay very broadly; topping-and-tailing his story with dream passages and ethereal voice-overs was a bad idea. The 'fraternal conflict’ angle gives the two leads some emotional baggage to play with but it’s a hoary old ploy (used most recently in 2008’s Pride and Glory 2007’s We Own The Night). Much of what passes for plot in The Viral Factor is plainly preposterous and far too reliant on coincidence, giving the appearance it was designed solely to move the noisy stuff from one combustible location to the next.

All the film’s flaws are forgotten, though, when Lam’s eye for action kicks in. The opening Middle Eastern-set firefight is a cracking piece of kinetic filmmaking and sets the standard for a succession of set-pieces in Hong Kong and Malaysia. The production seems to all but take over the business district of Kuala Lumpur, with high-powered automatic weapon showdowns and insane car and helicopter stunt work utilising several city blocks worth of buildings and extras in single, wide-angle takes (recalling Michael Mann’s Heat and John Frankheimer’s Ronin). The dockside denouement reverts to familiar tropes (freight container maze; slow-motion screams) but there is no denying Lam has breathtakingly delivered on the film’s action promise, even if the drama proves altogether disposable.


2 hours 2 min