Anyone who thinks Michael Bay makes the biggest, loudest movies on Earth should watch the new Hong Kong film “The Viral Factor,” which may not have had the budget for giant Transformers, but nonetheless puts Bay to shame in terms of the amount of sustained action. The movie lacks a single ounce of subtlety or pretension, with one fist-fight, shoot-out, and chase-sequence after another — all of which are based on a ludicrous, overcomplicated plot. For crying out loud: the movie begins with the protagonist getting shot in the brain and being told he has two weeks to live, only for him to begin another violent, action-laden adventure immediately thereafter. There is a Shakespearean broken family, a vial of smallpox about to be turned into a biological weapon, a little girl taken hostage — if the stakes were any higher, they’d be stoned.
Despite the Michael Bay comparison above, “The Viral Factor” writer/director Dante Lam is eons beyond the noted American hack in terms of storytelling ability and action craftsmanship. In fact, while the abundance of plot-points may seem excessive at times, Lam was right to implement so many because they ensure that there are always implied consequences for the non-stop action in the film. Whereas Bay uses quieter moments between chaotic set-pieces as hollow buffer, Lam always uses them to enhance the gravity of the oncoming explosions and chases. In addition, Lam handles the action itself better. The viewer can generally tell what’s going on in every part of the frame during even the most frenetic sequences in “The Viral Factor,” which is not something one can say about the “Transformers” sequels.
Still, the movie is not without considerable flaws, and for me to proclaim that it’s better than Michael Bay’s work is a rather tepid compliment. For one thing, even though Lam sets narrative stakes through which the viewer is able to invest, these stakes are founded on basic archetypes that audiences recognize and accept–a kid in harm’s way, an elderly mother who wants to find her long-lost son–rather than authentic characters. There is little emotional depth or humanity to “The Viral Factor,” despite committed performances from leads Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse. Thus, Lam only gets the viewer to care by signaling to the viewer that they should — a method which, while effective, is based on conceit. The movie’s shallowness is related to its second major flaw: at two hours, it’s far too long for its own good. In a film that’s designed solely to entertain the viewer with action spectacle and over-the-top theatrics, anything over 100 minutes starts to feel really tedious, as “The Viral Factor” proves.
If you’re a fan of the hyperkinetic action genre, then “The Viral Factor” is not a bad rental. As far as Hong Kong goes, Dante Lam isn’t John Woo, but he demonstrates visual flair and action wherewithal that make him a filmmaker to watch.
Blu-Ray Video and Audio: Well Go’s 1080p video transfer is one of the best of the year, capturing the cinematography’s saturated colors and fine layer of film-grain with striking fidelity. The action is clear, detailed, and easy to follow. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is just as arresting, with sound effects coming at you from every direction and a pitch-perfect dynamic range which captures voices just as well as gunshots. I’m not typically an action movie guy, but it was hard not to be involved when the chaos looked and sounded this good.
Special Features: Nothing to see here. There’s a 15-minute “making of” documentary that blends behind-the-scenes footage and cast/crew interviews, neither of which lend much complex insight into the production. Lam talks about shooting on the streets of Malaysia and how they approached some of the more elaborate action. Similar ideas are discussed during the separate “Cast and Crew Interviews” feature, in which Lam talks about his views on filmmaking (he says he aims for a ratio of 80 percent action to 20 percent non-action) and the cast members mostly describe their characters. It’s disposable stuff. Also on the disc is the film’s minute-long theatrical trailer.
One nit-picky complaint about the disc: The English subtitle track applies to even the dialogue that is in English (a substantial amount). Well Go should have only left these subtitles on for viewers selecting the English Closed Caption track.
Movie Grade: C+
Disc Grade: B
The Verdict: Rent it if you like the genre