Well Go USA // 2013 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Nazarewycz // March 18th, 2014
Fight or die.
Most of the Asian films I've watched that have a historic slant have leaned towards the dramatic, with moments of action throughout (which has been perfectly fine). This film looked like it would be the opposite -- an action film with a historical backdrop -- and that change looked like it would be perfectly fine for me.
The Wrath of Vajra tells the tale of one man's efforts to stop the rebirth of a martial arts cult that he was a product of -- one that has been defunct for a dozen years.
Hades is an ancient Japanese cult that once kidnapped children and trained them to become elite assassins. In the waning days of World War II, Japan decides to reboot the long-forbidden sect. It returns to its ways of abducting kids as well as procuring POWs to be converted and trained to kill. The task for putting all of this together is Hades Khan (Sung-jun Yoo, Man of Tai Chi), also known as K-28; that number is the one that was tattooed to his arm when he was previously the cult's fiercest member. The only man who can stop K-28 and Hades is K-29 (Yu Xing, Yip Man), a fellow Hades alum.
The Wrath of Vajra (Blu-ray) is probably the most dichotomous "good news/bad news" disc I've watched in a long time. Let me break the bad news first.
If you come to this film looking for either a plot or acting, you've come to the wrong to place. I've made the following comparison to other films in my time, but it certainly applies to this one. The Wrath of Vajra successfully follows a model that was perfected by the porn industry.
Step 1: Hire people who look good for whom having legitimate acting ability simply doesn't matter (because they look so good).
Step 2: Make sure those good-looking people excel at giving you the action you want to see, and in a variety of ways.
Step 3: Build a quick and shoddy story framework that only serves to get the good-looking people from action scene to action scene with as little impediment as possible.
See what I mean? That's The Wrath of Vajra. Everyone looks good, no one in the film can act (the American POWs are the most guilty of this -- it's at times difficult to watch), everyone is good with the action, and the plot is onion skin-thin and borderline ridiculous. It's porn that substitutes martial arts battles for sex.
Thus endeth the bad news.
The good news is that those martial arts battles are simply spectacular and so very worth suffering through the dreadful periphery to get to. There are numerous hand-to-hand battles in the film, and while some wire-fu is used, most of it relies on the sheer physical talent of its cast. Ultimately, the side action merely fills in some gaps between the three major battles K-29 must win to set the kids and POWs free.
The first battle is against Taskmaster Khan (Baocheng Jiang, Long nga), a towering giant of a man who dwarfs K-29 and evokes thoughts of a cross between James Bond's nemesis Jaws and Sloth in The Goonies. When K-29 arrives at the fight carrying an empty casket on his back, you know what the stakes are.
The second fight is worth the price of the disc. Demon Khan, aka Crazy Monkey, is a cross between an acrobatic martial artist and a demon from a Japanese horror film. The actor who plays him, Heon Jun Nam (Peullai, daedi), is also known as Poppin Hyun-Joon, a famous Korean break-dancer. He uses all of the pop-'n'-lock moves his lithe body can muster to turn in a fight the likes of which I have never seen before. The filmmakers ratted his dark, thick hair; gave him soulless eyes, foul teeth, and egregiously chapped lips; sharpened and rotted his fingernails, then sent him to live in the shadows. The character is so mesmerizing, I want a spinoff film with him as the star: prequel, sidequel, origin film, whatever.
The final battle, both climactic to the story and yet anti-so in the wake of the Crazy Monkey fight, is against K-28. It is, of course, epic, and brings the film to a satisfying conclusion. Still, it's difficult to describe the fight short of a blow-by-blow recap. It is, however, the perfect segue to discuss the action choreography and the directorial skills of Wing-cheong Law (PTU).
It's magnificent. It starts with traditional hand-to-hand martial arts combat, but the stakes are raised when full contact is made between the combatants. If you think it's fake (and you dismiss the extras, which confirm that actual contact is made), Law gives you a look behind the curtain with fantastic use of high-speed film, offering spectacularly clear slow-motion shots of impacts to the head and body, sending sweat flying and ripples across the skin with every impact. It's a fantastic watch. Law isn't all about trickery, though. Some of his shots in the film's quieter (albeit boring) times -- particularly the overheads -- are beautifully framed and pause-worthy.
Well Go USA's 2.39:1/1080p Blu transfer is sublime, highlighting every gorgeous aspect of Law's direction and cinematography, from those suitable-for-framing interiors, to the beads of sweat and blood being pummeled from K-28's face, to the underwater (yes!) portion of the Crazy Monkey fight. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio rises to the challenge of capturing every bone-crunching, slow-mo-blow.
There are six Making-Of featurettes that run a total of about 25 minutes:
* "The Mission"
* "Martial Art Styles"
* "The Rebirth"
* "Fighting I"
* "Fighting II"
* "Fighting III"
Each covers various areas of character, plot, and martial arts style, with loads of behind-the-scenes footage. The latter three are the best, as each focuses on a major battle in the film. The only challenge to watching these -- aside from the fact that you have to sit through the same intro/outro six times -- is that they are edited very quickly. In fact, there are times they are difficult to follow because the quick cutting doesn't allow for subtitles to last long. Also, because of pre-existing chyrons, sometimes the subtitles are at the bottom of the screen and sometimes they are at the top -- you never know.
I meant what I said -- the Crazy Monkey fight alone is worth the price of The Wrath of Vajra (Blu-ray), and everything else is gravy -- slow-mo gravy.
Review content copyright © 2014 Michael Nazarewycz; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
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