Bobby, Billy and Sydney "The Kid" are swapping war stories about recent assignments. Hoping to impress his pals, the inexperienced Sydney paints a wild portrait of a woodlands stalk and slaughter, bragging about his use of a bow and arrow to achieve his aims. The truth is far more mundane. Next up is Bobby. He offers a serial killer style account of each and every case he's "closed" during the last month. As they talk, the men drink and joke. When its Billy's turn, however, the proceedings take a decidedly dark twist. Appears Billy made an "error" on his last assignment and it threatens the entire project. Something must be done to set the balance right. And an unsuspecting bureaucrat with a surprise interest in the matter may hold the keys to wrapping up this mistake once and for all.
As a nation on the verge of health care bankruptcy, with more and more people entering the realm of the uninsured every day, Viral Assassins couldn't be more timely, telling, or threatening. Imagining a government so Hellbent on preventing a pandemic (or in this case, keeping one under control) that they would resort to making certain activities "illegal" is not so far from the reality of our current behavior modification crazy Congress. Indeed, just look at what happened when we ran out of the flu vaccine earlier this year. You half expected the President to call out the National Guard to make sure his constituency had immunization from the body aches and stuffiness associated with a bout with influenza. We are a very reactionary society, so much so that there are people running around with multiple prescriptions of Cipro coursing through their blood stream on the off chance that a rogue nation has a dirty anthrax bomb with our mailing address on it ready for delivery. Between AIDS and SARS and the recent run of Mad Cow hysteria creating a cloud that the God fearing "Amurican" just can't tolerate, forming a fascists facsimile to manage a new plague seems like the logical, not the lame brained ideal. Viral Assassins dares to ask the question "what if" and the answer is as provocative and painful as it would be should something even remotely close to it actually occur.
It takes a subtle, sure hand to turn all this potential over the top Soylent Green-dom into a manageable, believable film. Director Larkin is just the man for the job. Filled to the brim with visionary influences that he can mold into a style all his own, Viral Assassins is loaded with minor touches and repeated motifs to sell the otherworldly environment here. Sure, there is massive cribbing from David Lynch, what with the unexplained man, covered in oil and coal dust, working in the bowels of the hotel (reminiscent of Eraserhead's man in the globe) to the hotel from Hades histrionics of Barton Fink era Coen Brothers (too bad the young bellboy in Assassins wasn't named Chet. It would have been perfect). Toss in a little Delicatessen-esque Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 50-60s kitsch animation and even a small amount of David Fincher fatalism and you've got the gist of Viral Assassins visual language. This is surreality in all its off-putting glory. Larkin's desire to make something special out of an incredibly limited budget and moderate set design has him relying on the past (men wear hats and smoke pipes, phones are of the dial variety) and pilfering his auteur brethren for imagination inspiration. Though his cheat sheet of mise-en-scene steals is sometimes so large as to be too obvious, Larkin sells his premise so well and so completely you will forget all about the visual name checking and merely get lost in the story.
The script here is also something special. It resonates with a science fiction finesse that doesn't ring false or forced. The first rule of speculative fiction is to create a believable universe, complete with its own rules and reasoning and then build characters, plots and themes into it. Larkin does that here, using detailed touches like wall signs, graffiti, radio ads and logo iconography to paint the post-plague America. Then he twists it, leaving everything tweaked just a little off center to establish the futuristic foundation. Before you know it, you are completely immersed in this world, understanding its rules, anticipating its logic and fearing its retribution. There is a lot of suspense in Larkin's film and most of it comes from the atmosphere and ambience. But there is also an inherent dread in the narrative, with its killing quota storyline and "anyone could be the next victim" dynamic. Larkin keeps us on our toes, using flashbacks and forwards to consistently juxtapose the truth with the lie, the actual with the ambiguous. Between the clever character development that uses both verbal and visual clues to tell us who these individuals are to the campy creative images tossed about, Viral Assassins shows signs of ingenuity and inventiveness that other End of the World/Armageddon goofs just don't get.
In reality, one could easily see Viral Assassins being made into a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, with superstar names like Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett in the roles of our intrepid tax-hired killers. Sure, the story would have to be opened up, and the killing sequences turned into action spectacles to feed the mainstream money making machine, but Viral Assassins has that kind of sure-fire premise that would almost always work. As pointed out, it has before, from Chuck Heston's jade people chunks to Michael Crichton's strained Andromeda. But no one has ever really approached it from a workaday, bureaucratic standpoint. There are no heroes or heroics in Viral Assassins. We are not witnessing a life or death struggle to save the planet or its population. No one is fighting the power or secretly keeping the man from murdering his people out of plague fear. No, these are just your everyday average working class assassins, locked in a career cycle that has them slaughtering "undesirables" for their paycheck. As an allegory for class war or politics, as a cautionary example for out of control governmental power, or as a stellar, visually involving piece of subtle science fiction, Viral Assassins transcends its no budget trappings to be a smart, involving thriller. Just don't be surprised if it comes true in the next twenty years.