The Blu-ray case for The Viral Factor — an impressive, preposterous Hong Kong action offering available Aug. 28 — proudly boasts that the film comes “From the star of The Green Hornet“, possibly marking the first and last time anyone has bragged about their involvement with The Green Hornet. (Don’t look at me: I’m one of the few people who really enjoyed it.) Nevertheless, you shouldn’t shy away from this one just because it may somewhat be selling itself short.
While escorting a criminal scientist from Jordan to Norway, International Security Affairs agent Jon (Jay Chou, Kato in The Green Hornet) and his team are ambushed. Unfortunately, a member of Jon’s team is a traitor who puts a bullet in Jon’s head, kidnaps the scientist, and threatens to unleash a deadly virus on the world. Doctors inform Jon that the bullet is lodged in his brain and he only has a few weeks until it causes complete paralysis. So far, I’m thinking we’ve got the ingredients for a pretty solid action flick. Jon has to race against time to get revenge against his traitorous colleague Sean (Andy Tien) and save the world before his body breaks down, right? Well, not exactly.
You see, The Viral Factor isn’t satisfied with merely having “the ingredients for a pretty solid action flick.” After learning of his diagnosis, Jon returns home to Beijing, where his mother reveals that Jon’s father and brother — both missing from his life since Jon was two years old — are alive and living in Malaysia. Jon travels there to meet his long-lost family members. Turns out Jon’s brother Man Yeung (Nicholas Tse) is a career criminal, so their crippled father (Liu Kai-Chi) looks after Yeung’s adorable young daughter. A cop vs. criminal family dynamic would be compelling enough on its own, but this thing is called The Viral Factor; the filmmakers had to somehow tie this thing together with that nasty virus. As a result, Yeung is tasked with kidnapping Dr. Kan (Lin Peng), a scientist crucial to Sean’s dastardly plans, and who Jon had befriended on his flight to Malaysia. As a result, Jon’s mission to connect with his brother puts him on a collision course with Sean and the virus.
I don’t know if you can tell yet, but the film’s absurd, bloated script — co-written by director Dante Lam and Jack Ng, and overflowing with convenient coincidences — is not exactly its greatest strength. Then again, who says you need a sensible script to make a great action movie? I still laugh my butt off when I hear (or even think) about the plot of Face/Off, but I love the heck out of that ridiculous flick. In other words, I don’t mind the silliness of The Viral Factor as much as I mind that it’s probably about 15-20 minutes too long.
Fortunately, a significant portion of the film’s 122-minute running time is filled with fantastic action, including some of the best stunts I’ve seen all year. My favorite moment featured a car soaring through the air after jumping a barrier, getting hit by a bus and spinning through a restaurant’s plate glass windows. Lam (Beast Stalker) works on a grand scale with this big-budget production (costing a modest-by-American-standards $18 million), bringing excitement by land (a great shootout in Jordan), air (a cool-looking helicopter chase toward the end) and sea (a climactic showdown on a cargo ship). Most of all, I loved that Lam occasionally pulled his camera back and allowed the audience to simply take in the scale and spectacle of the mayhem he had staged. The only thing I didn’t care for was the protagonists’ near superhuman ability to absorb gunfire and keep on ticking. (On the other hand, at least they were getting hit: bad guys in action movies have notoriously atrocious aim.)
Chou — in a gritty departure — is appealing as do-gooder Jon, a role with plenty of snoozer potential. Tse is electric as the more dangerous Yeung while maintaining a proper amount of the character’s humanity. Chou and Tse develop believable chemistry in a limited amount of screen time together. Tien is more cocky than nasty as the bad guy. Unfortunately, some of his line readings — his dialogue was, curiously, in English — were a bit flat. The other standouts included Liu Kai-Chi as the boys’ rascally father and a crooked cop played by an actor who stole Barry Gibbs’ hair.
The Viral Factor is at its best when it’s forsaking gooey sentimentality and melodrama in favor of pulse-pounding set pieces. Thankfully, this film provides more than enough thrills to keep action fans satisfied.
The Viral Factor is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 20 mbps. The video transfer makes a strong first impression from the moment it opens with an underwater dream sequence featuring beautiful clarity and texture. Every speck and tiny bubble in the water appears to be visible. There is an impressive sharpness throughout the entire picture with plenty of fine detail. (You’ll notice flecks of dust during a slo-mo explosion.) Colors are strong throughout and help convey the film’s different visual palettes in its various locations. (The scenes in Jordan have a brighter, yellower tint than the slightly bluer, darker action in the urban parts of Malaysia.) If I have a minor complaint, it’s that the transfer lost some of that fine grain and detail during several FX shots, making the image look overly artificial. Fortunately, the film relies a lot more on practical stunts than CGI, so this isn’t a major issue.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is terrific, making you feel like you’re part of the action despite not bothering much with immersion. I knew I was in great hands with this audio track early on thanks to a roaring firefight/ambush that also manages to be incredibly dynamic. I expected the explosive scenes to bring the boom, but I didn’t anticipate how well-placed and detailed the action would sound coming out of the speakers. For example, it’s incredibly easy to tell the difference between the two types of gunfire in the firefight between International Security Affairs agents and the group leading the ambush. Dialogue (the Cantonese track features a healthy amount of English) comes through nicely in this balanced, well-mixed track. The disc also features Dolby Digital Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in Cantonese and English.
The bonus material listed below — except for the trailer — is lumped together as a single special feature with a running time of almost 51 minutes. The menu gives you the option of jumping ahead to any of the cast or crew interviews. (Their running times are listed below.) All of the bonus material is presented in standard definition.
Making of: (14:37) Cast and crew talk about undergoing firearm training, as well as filming a firefight in Jordan while a real war was taking place in the country. Lam is incredibly grateful to the people of Malaysia for providing great access to locations and allowing his production to create traffic jams. We also got behind-the-scenes looks at some of the stunts, while the actors commented on how physically demanding this film was. (Not a shocker.) Overall, a pretty solid mini-doc.
Cast & Crew Interviews: Features subtitled comments from director Dante Lam (10:01), as well as actors Nicholas Tse (9:55) and Jay Chou (16:07). Lam refers to the movie by its Chinese title Jik zin (“Uphill Battle”) and says he got into the action genre because he wanted to make films with rhythm and movement. Tse, who has worked with Lam several times before, says the director is known to shoot a real gun in the air when he yells “Action!” and discusses his natural chemistry with Chou. Meanwhile, Chou admits to being a bit overwhelmed at first by the physicality required in this film — he thought The Green Hornet had prepared him enough — and his initial reluctance to dirty up his image. (The actor usually insists on looking handsome on-screen.) Chou also talks about having enough confidence in Lam’s abilities that he felt comfortable being one of the director’s pawns. The three interviews are occasionally redundant, but they do touch on some interesting points.
The Viral Factor is a throwback to the sort of relentless action films Hong Kong cinema was routinely pumping out in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s. The similarities between Lam and John Woo are obvious, but I actually think Lam’s style might be closer to that of the late Tony Scott.
Yes, it’d be nice if the script weren’t quite as ludicrous, but the story was never more than an excuse to stage exciting action sequences. In that regard, The Viral Factor absolutely delivers. This is a fine-looking (and great-sounding) Blu-ray that is recommended for action fans who love fantastic set pieces (and can overlook unbelievable coincidences).