I guess I’m terminally optimistic. I expect an action movie to not be that hard to understand. I mean, there’s a basic formula, right? You need a good guy, and a bad guy, and you need something for them to fight over. The good guy needs to be the hero (technically) so usually it’s a case of the good guy trying to stop the bad guy from doing bad things, whether that be on a personal scale (like Liam Neeson in Taken) or a global one (like Tom and the team in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). Usually there is a healthy serving of chases (car, bike, train, helicopter – basically anything that moves), liberal use of weapons (knives, swords, guns, bombs, and anything that maims or kills), sometimes there’s someone to be saved (helpless children), always there’s a final showdown mano-a-mano and often the bad guy dies. If he doesn’t die, he usually goes to jail. Simple, right?
Maybe it’s a result of desensitisation, or maybe it’s just that as viewers we’re all getting so much more sophisticated, but Dante Lam’s The Viral Factor seems anything but simple. There’s a good guy, yes. That would be Jay Chou as Jon Man, talented and principled cop/soldier. There’s a bad guy. That would definitely be Andy On playing Sean Wong, still talented but somewhat less principled. But wait, there’s more. Bridging the gap between right and wrong is Nicholas Tse, who plays Man Yeung, Jon’s long lost big brother who, along with their father, hasn’t exactly been living life on the straight and narrow. Now, it doesn’t sound complicated, does it, but between the three of them there’s just a little too much going on.
The Viral Factor kicks off well. An international team of military personnel (of which Jon and Sean are part) have been engaged to protect and transport a chemist who has developed a deadly strain of smallpox. As might be expected, things don’t go exactly as planned. This opening sequence, set in the streets of Jordan and complete with IEDs and RPGs, shows how deftly Lam can handle the cinematic choreography necessary to pull off a tight, tense pitched urban battle. It’s nothing short of brilliant, and the moment in which everything comes to a head (no pun intended) is suitably shocking. Jon realises just a moment too late that the team has been betrayed, Sean shoots Jon’s partner Ice (Bai Bing) and inadvertently gets a two for one deal, then escapes with the scientist to sell his shiny new bioweapon to the highest bidder and poor Jon wakes up in hospital a little later with a bullet lodged in his brain and only a couple of weeks left to live.
Now, under normal circumstances (i.e. almost all action movie tropes), you’d expect Jon to dedicate the rest of his now-short life to finding and bringing to justice his murdering ex-team mate, with the clock ticking on the time bomb in his head. Lam takes a different path for this film though. Instead of embarking on a mission of justice and revenge to give meaning to his final moments, Jon instead goes… home. And there, his teary mother reveals that he actually has an older brother he never knew. Okay. Fair enough. So Jon embarks on a journey of familial reparation instead. Maybe this isn’t an action movie after all? Maybe it’s more of a drama? But no, because as soon as Jon finds his long lost sibling, he discovers he’s up to his ears in criminal activities connected to Sean and the virus.
So, then you’d maybe expect Jon and Sheung to team up to stop Sean, but again, not so much. Kudos to Lam and his co-writers Candy Leung and Wai Lun Ng for aiming high, but now we have three different plot-lines instead of one – a) the life-threatening virus in the hands of the bad guys, b) the reconciling of Jon’s estranged family, and c) Jon dying. Or wait, is there four? Tse’s character is clearly meant to be the redeemable anti-hero, but Lam unfortunately seems to be a little confused as to exactly who his focus should be. Tse is obviously a bit of a draw card (despite the range of funny faces he seems able to pull) but in all honesty in order to keep this film sharp, he really should have taken a back seat to Chou’s character. He doesn’t. As the story progresses, the main drive of the film – that of the good guy going up against the bad guy to save the world, or even that of the good guy setting things right before his time runs out – gets increasingly diluted by the other drive of the film – that of the sort-of-bad guy rediscovering familial bonds, coming good in the eyes of his daughter and finally doing the ultimate Right Thing. As a result, neither Jon’s sacrificial efforts nor Sheung’s struggle for redemption have the narrative impact they might have had if they’d been the only vehicles.
It doesn’t make this a bad action film, per se. Action is definitely the operative word and Lam doesn’t skimp on it at any point. Numerous ‘exotic’ locations are the backdrops for heist scenes, fight scenes and chase scenes – all of them highly effective. But maybe Lam overdoes it just a little in his desire to wow his audience. Each sequence is bigger, better, more explosive than the last, and while events move at a fairly cracking pace, the numerous narratives struggle for attention. I’m sure it sounded fine on paper, but believe me they would have had a much tighter story on their hands if they’d just lost one or the other. Certainly, drama ensues, but like someone who keeps eating long after they’re full, The Viral Factor could have benefited greatly from another factor – simplification.