The Viral Factor (Jik zin)
Hong Kong (2012) Dir. Dante Lam
A security operation in Jordan by the International Defence Commission to escort a scientist who has stolen a sample of the smallpox virus is sabotaged when one of the team Sean (Andy On) betrays the others leaving team leader Jon Man (Jay Chou) with a bullet in his head and his girlfriend Ice (Bai Bing) dead. Upon being told the bullet cannot be removed and he has two weeks left to live Jon returns home to his mother (Elaine Jin), who reveals that Jon has an elder brother who she walked out on with Jon, leaving him with their gambler father Man Tin (Liu Kai-chi). Jon tracks them down in Malaysia, meeting female doctor Rachel Kan (Lin Peng) on the flight there. When they land Dr. Kan is kidnapped by a group of criminals causing Jon to intervene, unaware that the ringleader is wanted criminal Man Yeung (Nicholas Tse), his older brother. To complicate matters further Man Yeung has been set up in a sting orchestrated by Sean drawing Jon to work on the other side of the criminal fence.
The New Year in Hong Kong is usually marked by the world of cinema with a big budget, A-list cast comedy; 2012 sees that baton passed on to Dante Lam and this mega budget, explosive action thriller – with the emphasis on “explosive”. Lam is known for such taut and twisting crime thrillers such as Beast Stalker, Stool Pigeon and Fire Of Conscience has opted to use for the Hollywood blockbuster template for this outing and while many of the familiar elements of Lam’s other works remain, it would seem Lam has also taken on board the “Style Over Substance” ethos of Tinsel Town too.
Things start off well enough with a tense shoot out in Jordan (with dialogue entirely in English for some reason) which sees Jon and Ice meet their respective fates before the human drama takes over, but this doesn’t last for long as we are then introduced to Man Yeung who is on his way to prison for two concurrent ten year stretches for being a dangerous criminal. However like his brother Man Yeung is a skilled ass kicker and seemingly impervious to pain, as he fights his way out of the prison surviving being maced, shot, beaten, slashed across the face and a four storey leap onto the back of a truck!
This, along with Jon surviving a bullet in the brain, sets the tone for the sort of manic and OTT action you will see across the two hour running time. Granted the action scenes are superb, well paced and expertly filmed and constructed, but the reliance on Bond-esque contrivances and the indestructibility of the main cast means suspension of disbelief is required in a family sized pack.
To satisfy the drama side of the story, Jon finds his father is still in trouble running a small food stall while looking after Man Yeung’s daughter Champ (Crystal Lee), while said youngster finds out what a lag her father is by the press, but takes it all in her stride. Man Yeung is working alongside a corrupt cop Russell (Philip Keung) who is secretly working with Sean, who in turn has a deal with a foreign crime lord for the Smallpox virus. With the original doctor killed in a traffic accident, Dr. Kan is the chosen substitute to make up a new compound virus with her kidnapped mother slated to be the test case subject. But an intervention from the newly reunited brothers after a police showdown which saw Champ kidnapped, means another test case subject is used instead. Guess who that is….
So we have an overloaded story that dips in and out of its various threads with little consistency amidst a bucket load of action which struggles to create any real emotional tension when needed. The various allegiances and partnerships are never fully explored so when they are broken we don’t get to understand why or indeed care. And of course the eventually reconnection between the two brothers who spend their initial meetings beating the crap out of each other is rushed, again creating a sense of false sentimentality.
Lam would have done better to pick one story thread and stick to it which no doubt would have given the film a much stronger sense of cohesion and room for development. The cast at least make an effort although Jay Chou seems to be sleepwalking through his scenes – but considering his character has a bullet in his brain, I suppose that is understandable.
Convoluted plotlines aside, The Viral Factor delivers the kind of high octane, loud thrills and spills which are designed to brighten up a Saturday night. It’s not an entirely bad film per se, just one which over reaches its remit and underachieves as a result. Enjoy the ride for what it is, but let’s hope Dante Lam will return to his previous form with his next film.