One of Hong Kong's rising film directors, Dante Lam has gained prominence over the last few years for his lavishly produced, hard hitting cop action thrillers underlined by thick melodrama between the main characters. His latest film The Viral Factor is obvious in having Lam's signature plastered all over, that this could be Dante's spiritual interpretation of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow with brothers on opposite sides of the law having to put aside their obvious differences to work together against a common enemy and goal.
The story bore some shades of intention from Woo's Mission: Impossible 2, where a virus got created to hold the world ransom at the breakout of an epidemic. In The Viral Factor, this comes in the form of weaponizing a variant of the smallpox virus, where a corrupt pharmaceutical company had employed thugs to obtain one of the last remnants of the virus, and to fund both its viral nature, and to come up with the medicine and the vaccine, thereby earning itself billions in profits, and adulation from the world for its cures. Talk about being both the devil and angel at the same time, and making tons of money from it.
With Dante Lam and Ng Wai Lun sharing screenplay responsibilities from a Candy Leung story, The Viral Factor soon has this premise put on the back-burner as it focused instead on the brotherly bonds or the lack thereof between international cop Jon Wan Fei (Jay Chou), introduced through his dream of getting yanked out of trouble by an invisible hand, and that of perennial robber Wan Yang (Nicholas Tse), a consistently wanted man in Malaysia who commits the largest of crime, and with the backing of corrupt cops, almost always finds a way out of either the court house or the jail. With the Beijing based cop learning from his Mother (Elaine Jin) about her wanting to seek forgiveness from his dad (Liu Kai-chi) and brother for walking out on them, Jon makes the trip to Malaysia to track them down, despite nursing a "bullet-in-the-head" injury that decided to rear its ugly head only during flights (for product placement purposes), or when it's plot convenient.
And it is in Kuala Lumpur that the film spends significant time in, with Jon finally reconciling with his dad, his brother amidst under testy situations since both come from different sides of the law, and getting themselves in the way of the villains led by Andy On in full typecast, who are all after a scientist Rachel (Lin Peng) who has the skillset to weaponize the virus, and Wan Yang's daughter who gets captured as collateral. The two brothers have little time to get to know each other since a number of tasks get put in their way that requires plenty of shoot-em-ups to complete, but given this is a Dante Lam film, he'll craft enough emotional scenes in between for the building of camaraderie, and one of the better dramatic moments come when both brothers have to hide at an abandoned construction site and open themselves up, one who's brought up in Malaysia thus very fluent in Cantonese (thankfully and curiously the censors here allowed this to be in full and without dubbing), and the other conversing in Mandarin only. Some may find this a little bit unbelievable, but trust me I'd just appreciate that Nicholas Tse wasn't dubbed over.
I would liken Dante Lam to Hollywood's Michael Bay for his penchant of blowing things up, and almost always featuring some of the latest toys in weaponry for their characters to gear up and use. From the get go in Jay Chou's scene in Jordan where his extradition of a doctor and his family goes awry no thanks to an ambush, it's full on military mode and precision as he tackles this sequence, and every other action sequence later, with craft to rival the best of the West. No doubt some scenes may be overly long and indulgent just to showcase what Lam can do, repetitive even, but amongst his filmography The Viral Factor demonstrates just how Lam has continued to improve upon his action delivery. And what makes him stand out is the insistence to focus on the human emotion, so that his characters don't pass off as one dimensional and having an emotional void.
And if I may digress, The Viral Factor serves up to be a little more of an enviable look at how it can be made in Malaysia, but certainly not Singapore. Not since Jackie Chan's Supercop can I remember the scale and spectacle of a non Malaysian production, and an A-list film at that, being shot on her shores that feature helicopter chases, foot pursuits, massive shootouts within the confines of cars stuck in jams, featuring plenty of gunfire and huge explosions (some with the help of CG of course). For all that Singapore desires in overseas productions coming to shoot here, we can only boast the likes of Hindi superhero film Krrish, and to a lesser extent De Dana Dan, which was a comedy mostly set within the four walls of the Pan Pacific Hotel. For that high octane action sequences filmed outdoors, perhaps Gordon Chan's 2000 A.D. starring Aaron Kwok can be counted, as can Wong Jing's The Last Blood starring Alan Tam, Eric Tsang and Andy Lau. These were pre-Y2K, where we still have and perhaps have improved upon the infrastructure, but perhaps we're bound by even more bureaucracy, and I suspect that incessant obsession even to vet through scripts, and frankly, thinking too much.
For instance, while we have the sets, skyline and pretty much a lot of available hardware, the heartware could be missing, which I suspect after The Last Blood, I haven't seen a film shot here that features a corrupt cop. The Viral Factor has corrupt and inept cops galore, which in the story is taken as a given though the authorities frankly have no qualms about it since it's after all, a fictional film. Can I hover a handful of helicopters overhead to shoot one of the set action pieces? Probably the permits to fill in will stack up to be as thick as a telephone directory, with worries that the constant buzz and whir in our city will scare away investors. Can I shoot something in the MRT stations and trains? Well, I suppose the constant breakdowns make it an unattractive option. And the list went on as I daydreamed how interesting it would be to get an up to date crime action flick shot here, done by local filmmakers, or having international productions come here (Point Break 2, anyone?)
Jay Chou has come out to proclaim that this would be his final action film, but to that I'd say never say never. He's more of a singer than actor, although I have to admit he does have screen charisma and have progressed quite nicely from his rather wooden outing in Curse of the Golden Flower. Nicholas Tse on the other hand shows why he's top dog now, with that ability to balance the more dramatic moments and holding his own during the action sequences. His acting has developed from when he first started out, relying on his "idol" looks and poser attitude then, to grow into a bona fide actor now, with some of his best work done under the watch of Dante Lam.
It's a surprise to have lined this up for the Lunar New Year since this is a period for comedies and family friendly entertainment, but if you're in the mood for some action, The Viral Factor lives up to expectation despite minor plot quibbles and loopholes and underlines Dante Lam's ambition and capability to helm large action spectacles, with the promise of more to come.