“The Wrath of Vajra” is the kind of old fashioned martial arts fun that used to be popular in the 1970s and 90s, revolving around tournaments, sinister cults and training sequences. The film is a China-Hong Kong production directed by Law Wing Cheong, a Milkyway regular who recently helmed the Anthony Wong-starring “Punished” and worked on the likes of “Exiled”, “Election” and others, produced by Pang Hong (“Painted Skin: Resurrection”), and with action choreography from the legendary Sammo Hung and Zhang Peng. The film is also of interest for offering a rare lead role to Xing Yu (who also goes by Shi Yanneng), a former Shaolin monk and martial artist who has spent his career over the last 15 years notching up supporting roles in an impressive list of genre hits including “Kung Fu Hustle” through to “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”.
The film is set in 1930s China, with the creepy Hades death cult paving the way for the coming Japanese invasion by snatching children and brainwashing them into becoming evil assassins, giving them numbers instead of names. Led from behind bars by the villainous Kawao Amano (veteran actor Yasuaki Kurata, recently in “The Last Tycoon”), the cult has a somewhat odd plan to demoralise the Chinese by defeating or recruiting top martial artists, with its top fighter K-28 (Steve Yoo, “Little Big Soldier”) crushing all who stand against him. His only rival is K-29 (Xing Yu), a former cult abductee turned Shaolin monk, who is lured back to face a series of fearsome opponents, including the bizarre and cannibalistic Crazy Monkey, a.k.a. the “Zombie of Vajra” (Korean dancer Poppin Hyun-Joon, who also showed off his skills in “Kung Fu Hip Hop”).
Despite its use of CGI and its slick production values, there’s something very old school about “The Wrath of Vajra”, a fact likely to endear it to martial arts fans looking for straightforward action. With the plot being entertaining nonsense at best, Law Wing Cheong wisely keeps the fight scenes at the centre of the film, taking up much of its running time and having been handled with obvious care and enthusiasm. The choreography is decent, mixing bone-crunching brutality with some wacky and over the top touches (during the Crazy Monkey set piece in particular), and though there’s an uncertainty of tone that sees the film veering from solemn pomp to out and out daftness, this isn’t a bad thing by any means.
The film is one of the few to show intelligent use of slow motion, and pays a pleasing amount of attention to detail when it comes to the actual martial arts moves and the physicality of the fighters, giving its duels an all-important edge and impact. While not the most obviously charismatic of stars, Xing Yu is fine in the lead, at least when the fists are flying, and his match ups with the more colourful members of the supporting cast are fun to watch, with a few impressive money shots here and there.
As a modest piece of genre cinema, the only real issue the film has is an unnecessary subplot involving Zhang Yamei as Eko, the daughter of the evil Kawao Amano who works as a journalist, taking pictures of the fights to help spread the word of Hades’ dominance while slowly coming to realise that the death cult is actually not a very pleasant organisation. While the ridiculousness of her naivety itself is inadvertently amusing, Law sadly also seems to think that her presence also adds some kind of emotional weight to the proceedings, with a love interest theme really not serving any purpose other than to slow things down during an otherwise efficiently paced narrative.
This is however a relatively minor gripe, and “The Wrath of Vajra”, while by no means spectacular or likely to linger long in the memory, is a very respectable slice of martial arts action. A welcome throwback to an older era, it’s at its best when laying on the action, and is all the better for its lapses of common sense, and though unlikely to make a star of Xing Yu, is one of the more enjoyable genre films of late.
Wing-cheong Law (director) / Zhenjian Yang (screenplay)
CAST: Yu Xing … K-29
Sung-jun Yoo …
Heon Jun Nam … Crazy Monkey
Baocheng Jiang … Tetsumaku Rai
Yamei Zhang … Eko
Yasuaki Kurata … Amano Kawao