Slick-looking and super-masculine, The Wrath of Vajra feels like a “fight movie” from a much earlier time, supplemented with mostly modern production and cinematography. A time when men were men and fought each other for reasons that were delivered in an early barrage of impenetrable exposition, getting it over with at the start so that we can get on with the kicks and punches.
The setting is the 1940s, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Japanese are finding that maintaining control over much of China is more difficult than they had thought. The Prince of the Empire (played by Ikeuchi Hiroyuki) visits an older gentleman named Amano (action veteran Yasuaki Kurata) in prison to seek his help: they want to reactivate the rather vile death cult that he founded, one that the Japanese state had clamped down on twelve years previously. The Hades cult, as it was called, took orphaned children and built them into single-minded killing machines, the finest of which were code-named (and tattooed) K-28 and K-29.
Kurashige Daisuke, or K-28 (played menacingly by Steve Yoo) is tasked with reinventing the Hades cult in China, kidnapping fighters and a new batch of orphans to build up a new Hades army. K-29, a Chinese student (played by Shaolin monk-turned-actor Shi Yanneng, who played the Coolie ten years ago in Kung Fu Hustle) left Hades to join the Southern Shaolin Temple, and is drawn back into events when he hears of the cult’s revival practically on his own doorstep, and the batch of children they’ve kidnapped.
Also in the mix are an international group of soldiers (including American martial artist Matt Mullins), captured and coerced to fight for Hades, and cult-leader Amano’s daughter Eko (played by Zhang Yamei), a journalist who’s there in China to cover the glorious rebirth of her father’s ideology.
(As an aside: The word Vajra in the title is used to refer to a top fighter within the Hades cult; though it’s not explained and I’ve never seen the word used before in this context, I’m guessing it comes from the Sanskrit word for thunderbolt or diamond, often used to refer to something possessed of irresistible force or unstoppable power. The reason for selecting the name Hades from Greek mythology for a nationalist Japanese death cult is also left unexplained.)
Director Law Wing-Cheong has worked in Hong Kong as an assistant director to Johnnie To since the mid-90s, but here he’s built an action flick that feels like a bit of a throwback to HK of old — even as far as the Golden Harvest and Shaws films of the 70s — where one righteous fighter takes on a nefarious cult of evildoers for all the right reasons. The difference, of course, is very modern production values and lensing (from HK’s Edmond Fung) and the international cast. The action choreography is by Zhang Peng, who got his start in Jackie Chan’s stunt team but has been working mostly on big Hollywood action films for a decade. In this film he blends old-school movie kung fu with modern MMA influences, taking full advantage of the more acrobatic talents of some of the cast.
Shi Yanneng does a serviceable, if a little uninteresting, job in the lead. The honour-bound student of Shaolin is a stoic, uncompromising hero, with not much wiggle-room to develop the character, though Shi shows himself to be more than capable in the action scenes. A few of the character’s mannerisms and the occasional piece of choreography reminded me terribly of Bruce Lee’s harder-edged characters, particularly his turn as Chen Zhen in Fist of Fury. Overshadowing Shi Yanneng in the film is Korean-American pop star Steve Yoo (Little Big Soldier, Chinese Zodiac, Man of Tai Chi), who exudes muscle-bound menace as lead villain K-28 — seriously, the man is big! — and seems to control the Hades cult through sheer ferocity and force of will. The other actor who deserves a mention is Korean breakdancer Poppin’ Hyun-joon, who plays an inhumanly agile Hades fighter named Crazy Monkey and delivers one of the strongest fight sequences in the film.
The Wrath of Vajra does what it says on the tin, delivering a series of big, elaborately choreographed fight sequences against a familiar (if overcomplicated) backdrop of evil cults and children who need rescuing. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it is an interesting mix of old-school Hong Kong kung fu flick and tentpole 3D Chinese action movie, along with some elements that were obviously included with one eye on the film’s international appeal.