FilmSlashTV: Bang, bang, shoot me up

Jan. 20, 2012 | 0 Comments

Bing Bai and Jay Chou are rough 'n' ready secret agents in 'Viral Factor.' (Courtesy China Lion)

Bing Bai and Jay Chou are rough 'n' ready secret agents in "Viral Factor." (Courtesy China Lion)

REVIEW BY BURL BURLINGAME / bburlingame@staradvertiser.com

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that “Viral Factor” point man Jay Chou, playing some sort of government agent named Jon Man, gets shot in the head and spends the movie with a bullet rattling around in his brain, causing all sorts of headaches accompanied by special effects. After all, it happens in, like, the first minute of the movie.

‘The Viral Factor’

In theaters now

It matters because I then spent the rest of the film thinking that, “The Viral Factor” is such a cheesy title, and “Bullet in the Head” would have been such a cool title. But John Woo already been there, and done that.

Brain puree is the least of agent Man’s problems. His squad is ambushed by baddies as they accompany a biological-warfare specialist into hiding in Jordan, and they’re betrayed by a rogue agent named Sean — played by Andy Tien — and nearly everybody is killed. The baddies want the scientist to brew up some extra-powerful smallpox and vaccine and sell it to an evil arms dealer, to whom they promise that he will become “the tenth-richest man in the world!” Jeez, what did the top nine do?

The ambush and shootout make you sit up in the theater and there’s no relaxing from that point on. “Viral Factor” excells at loud, dangerous, action choreography highlighted by tremendous stunt work. The car crashes here clearly aren’t animated CGI. They look horrifying and dangerous.

And “Viral Factor” is off and running. It’s a slam-bang action picture that goes totally thrombo, despite a hootingly ridiculous plot and some fairly terrible acting. Even the spoken English here gets subtitled because the cadence is so stilted.

Secret agent Man (sorry, couldn’t resist) also must deal with Yeung Man, a long-lost and newly estranged brother who’s gone criminal. (Alternate title: “Yeung Man in a Hurry.” Or maybe “Go West, Yeung Man.”) He’s played by snarling-dog Nicolas Tse with a kind of hungover Captain Jack Sparrow vibe. He describes himself as “a thief, but a righteous thief.” The boys were separated when their parents divorced way long ago, and this divorce hangs over the entire movie like Galactica smooshing the Fantastic Four.

Seriously — here’s a movie that celebrates stabbing children with deadly viruses, where any number of innocent civilians are gunned down or blowed up or runned over, where entire buildings are destroyed — entire city blocks, sometimes — where deadly, horrible mayhem runs berserk, where people getting shot in the head are shown in extreme close-up slo-mo, and then everything absolutely stops when the brothers and their mother and father start blubbering about the divorce that happened a quarter-century ago.

If this were a Korean movie (and Korean movies have a jones for sudden, inappropriate and hilarious outbreaks of blubbery soap-opera emotionalism) you could chalk it up to a clunky metaphor about a divided nation. But no, this is a Hong Kong movie, and that means Chinese characters named Sean and Jon and Rachel and Ice and Champ, and it’s largely filmed in Malaysia, where crazy stunt-car drivers are cheap.

But then, we aren’t on the edge of our seats for anything realistic. “The Viral Factor” is a monster rush of muscular action sequences, tepidly glued together with rapidly evaporating logic. Secret agent Man’s brain has turned to mush, and it’s spreading to the audience. Yeah, baby!
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Burl Burlingame is a features reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at bburlingame@staradvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter.

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