There is a certain brand of action film that, in lieu of having one compelling and engaging plot, opts instead to have a surplus of overcooked plot lines that are neither coherent nor really related in anyway. Perhaps the hope is that the viewer might just shrug his or her shoulders and contentedly wait for things to go boom. As far as multiple, incoherent plotlines go, this is most definitely where director Dante Lam has established his comfort zone. As such, it comes as no surprise that his effort on 'The Viral Factor' results in a rather clumsy and overlong, but spectacular mess.
Lam, who also takes a co-screenwriting credit, finds he is working well within the realm of extravagance – and considering the film's bloated runtime, seems happy to be there. Where most other storytellers would restrict themselves to: 1) a tale about a mutated smallpox virus being unleashed so the holder of the vaccine may become insanely wealthy, or 2) a soap-operatic film about estranged brothers finally reunited only to find they are on opposite sides of the law, Lam mashes them together and throws in all sorts of additional action-movie goodies like terminal illness, infidelity, and kidnapping to further distract the audience from the fact that nothing makes much sense.
The film starts off with a bang… well, it actually starts off with several minutes of expositional dialogue explaining why a group of highly trained cops must transport a scientist with the ability to replicate the mutated smallpox virus to a safe location, and it helps set up the doomed character of Jon, played by Jay Chou of 'The Green Hornet.' After the caravan carrying the scientist is attacked with the obligatory terrorist fired RPG, the film quickly slips into 'Call of Duty' mode, wherein 'The Viral Factor' no longer resembles a film, but is, instead, completely derivative of a video game. During the botched extraction, the team's leader, Sean (Andy On) plays turncoat in and murder's Jon's ex-girlfriend, Ice (Bing Bai), with an unnecessarily graphic, slow motion gunshot to the head. The catch, however, is that the same bullet that kills Ice also strikes Jon, lodging itself deep inside his brain. After waking in the hospital, Jon is given the bad news that although he survived being shot in the head, the bullet cannot be removed, and will eventually result in the complete paralysis of his body.
On that high note, Jon returns home and is given more good news by his aging and disabled mother that the brother and father he never knew are living in Kuala Lumpur and that maybe he should drop in on them and pay them a visit – seeing as how that bullet has set the proverbial clock a tickin'. Since the bullet basically cleared his professional and social schedule, Jon heads out to Kuala Lumpur and, coincidentally, meets exactly the kind of woman a recently single, attractive guy with a bullet in his brain would want. Since everything in 'The Viral Factor' is so intrinsically connected, this young woman, Dr. Kan (Ling Peng), is wanted by the same people manufacturing the vaccine for the mutated smallpox virus – basically because they let the first scientist get killed crossing the road in yet another bungled escape attempt.
To further mire the film in overly complicated contrivances, Sean's plot to unleash the smallpox virus also includes Jon's long-lost brother Man Yeung (Nicholas Tse), a career thief who recently escaped from incarceration by jumping off the fourth floor balcony of a courthouse. Yeung is tasked with kidnapping Dr. Kan, and in doing so winds up facing off with his little brother during a well-choreographed fight sequence that takes place inside an overturned transport van. After that fateful meeting, Jon's fate is forever linked to that of his estranged family, which includes his father, Man Tin (Liu Kai Chi) and Yeung's daughter, Champ (Crystal Lee), as they race to save Dr. Kan, prevent the smallpox virus from being unleashed and find some sort of redemption for Yeung.
As one might expect with an action movie of this caliber, any sort of redemption will come either from the end of a barrel, or through some high-octane fisticuffs. And therein lies the sole saving grace for 'The Viral Factor': The non-stop, relentless action. There are so many set pieces of prolonged shooting, fighting and chasing that it nearly puts most Michael Bay films to shame. Though most of the action sequences strain the limits of credulity by asking the film's main protagonists to absorb multiple gunshot wounds, survive falls from several stories high and endure bare-knuckle beat downs capable of rearranging the internal organs of your average water buffalo, they are gloriously fun to watch. Perhaps that is why, despite the ham-fisted nature of it all, 'The Viral Factor' comes off merely as an overlong film in need of some editing. The film's third act includes a rather impressive helicopter chase through downtown, and a two-pronged, bullet-filled attack on a heavily fortified shipping vessel that could have been just as riveting sans 30 minutes of unnecessarily long shootouts and fight sequences that led up to it.
It's hard to tell if audiences have been asking for yet another holding-the-world-hostage-by-virus movie, but it's equally difficult to tell if 'The Viral Factor' is even trying to present itself in that manner. Considering the schizophrenic nature of the film's thematic elements – soap opera or '80s movie homage – it's a pretty good bet that with a flip of a coin, Lam could just as readily have made this about hijacked nuclear weapons and a door-to-door vacuum salesman. When it gets right down to it, Lam and his cast are betting most people just want to see things go boom.
'The Viral Factor' is presented with 1080p AVC/ MPEG-4 codec that brings the high-octane action-fest to life. Folks will be hard-pressed to find a better-looking Blu-ray, as this one easily puts itself in league with even the most impressive transfers from recent Hollywood blockbusters. Clarity is flat-out stunning in every scene, from close ups to the detail on objects in the far distance, while contrast levels remain balanced with incredible precision. Though there exists the occasional banding issue, they are few and far between and rarely detract from the film's overall presentation.
All in all, colors are vivid without looking oversaturated or faked, and skin tones have been rendered beautifully, capturing the natural tone of the actors without any blotches or redness that can sometimes become an issue. Most impressively, however, are the black levels throughout the film. Here, blacks are rich and inky with good delineation of the various shades, while still providing excellent detail in dark or heavily shadowed environments. There is no hint of black crush anywhere on the disc, which adds to the finely detailed, richly colored transfer that is one of the most impressive parts of this action-lover's bonanza.
Fitted with two DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks (one in the film's original language, and one for those petulant few who refuse to read subtitles), 'The Viral Factor' audio fully realizes the bombastic action and grand scope of the film perhaps better than one could have thought possible. Here, every nuance, from the bustle of busy city streets, to the din of a train car are handled with such precision, the effect is complete immersion in every scene. Rear channel speakers are particularly well used to additional impact not only in recreating environmental sounds, but also in ramping up the film's incredibly loud and powerful use of sound effects.
Here, gunshots ring out with alarming clarity and the surround effects receive a rigorous workout as hot lead is flung in and out of every channel, filling the room with sounds of bullets whizzing by or ricocheting off walls and breaking through glass. Explosions receive the brunt of the disc's LFE impact, and they are enormous, but well mastered. Each fireball sounds distinct and manages to erupt with an intensity that is enjoyable and will rock you in your seat without losing clarity or overtaking the soundtrack entirely.
This is the kind of audio action lovers intend to savor when investing in a home theater system; it is powerful enough to be effective at low volumes, but monstrous enough to rattle the windows and really take your system for a spin.
Though it's a bloated example of action movie excess, 'The Viral Factor' has enough fun in its mostly cartoonish portrayal of violence that it never becomes bogged down by the realness of it all. With it's twisting and incomprehensible storylines, how could anyone take it seriously anyway? In that regard, Lam's balletic gunfights and martial arts showdowns hark back to the excessiveness of '80s and '90s Hollywood films, where Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, and Seagal were relentlessly blowing things up and breaking the necks of their enemies in the name of box office glory. In this era of a more popularized thinking-man's action hero like Jason Bourne or Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy, the run-and-gun styling of Dante Lam may come off as antiquated and hilariously old-fashioned, something begging to be looked upon with a hint of irony like the aging heroes of Stallone's 'The Expendables,' but utterly lacking that winking sense of self-awareness.
For action buffs, 'The Viral Factor' is definitely worth a rental.