Wrath of Vajra (US - BD RA)
Gabe learns the proper way to karate chop a dude in the neck...
Before the West entered World War II, a Japanese death cult called the Temple of Hades is ordered to aid in the spiritual destruction of China. Their method: abduct their enemies' children and train them as killers for the Emperor. Young Vajra was especially gifted, but swears a secret oath of revenge when his brother dies. Now, the greatest assassin in the temple, Vajra escapes to China and begins his quest to protect the innocent – and destroy the ones responsible for making him a living weapon. (From Well Go’s official synopsis)
Director Law Wing-cheong has directed a number of sequels and STV movies in his native China, but he is more renowned in fan circles for directing second unit on a number of Johnnie To’s best movies, including The Mission, PTU, Election, and Exiled. Director To returned the favour by allowing Law to use his name as an endorsement of his previous film, Punished. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on one’s expectations), Wrath of Vajra can’t possibly be confused with a Johnnie To crime film on almost any level. It marks a moment where Law is able to blaze his own trail as a filmmaker. That said, perhaps a bigger dollop of To’s kinetic grit and dark humour could’ve given the rather flat experience some texture. First-time screenwriter Zhenjian Yang’s script isn’t particularly original – it’s a variation on the same tournament wu xia moves have been telling since the advent of film – but it has a good hook that Law can build his martial arts set-pieces around. Unfortunately, this vital simplicity is perpetually overcomplicated by too many characters, too many breaks for plot, and some poorly-timed flashbacks. Under the supervision of a brutal editor, the entire first act could’ve easily been streamlined to 10 minutes or even designated by a title card.
Wrath of Vajra is perpetually trapped between Law’s attempts at the kind of prestige that coincides with historical epics and the reality of the material’s exploitation roots. We are rewarded for sitting through eternities of exposition (most of which reiterates information we were already told) with some truly outstanding and downright nasty martial arts battles. Law’s action pedigree has already been proven by his work with To, but Wrath of Vajra improves its odds with stunt choreography/action direction from Peng Zhang (stunt double and coordinator for a number of Western films, including Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) and martial arts great Sammo Hung. Wu xia fans may fear a lack of substantial fisticuffs based on the early, underwhelming, and generally brief skirmishes, but rest assured, Peng and Hung deliver the goods somewhere around the 40-minute mark when K-29 (the returning ‘King of Vajra,’ played by Shi Yanneng) finally arrives at the Hades temple (or palace, I’m not sure what the area’s technical designation is). The film’s clean, digitally-augmented look doesn’t really serve the brutality, though I suppose it fits the mould set by the videogame villains K-29 fights throughout the film. Most of the fights are shot cleanly, including a number Matrix-inspired speed-ramps and not entirely distracting (but completely arbitrary) optical zooms. Sometimes, the 2.40:1 framing is too tight for the handheld shots, making them appear more shaky and random than they’d appear if the film was presented open matte.
I can’t find any specs listing the exact rigs Law and director of photography Fun Yuen Man used to shoot Wrath of Vajra, but there is no mistaking the digital HD roots. It was originally released in Chinese theaters in 3D, though I don’t know if it was shot that way or converted in post. The more telling factor here is the excessive digital grading and overall smooth look. Close-up details are crisp and life-like, while wide-angle shots and backdrops appear pretty soft, though rarely at the risk of elemental separation. The imagery is so desaturated and dark that some sections of the film might as well have been shot in black & white. The harsher contrast of the daylight scenes, which are coloured almost exclusively with browns and violets, help create more impressive dynamic ranges (not to mention serving as a placid canvas to splash bright red blood across during the fights). The night palette is muddier with diffused highlights and blobby green hues, leading to the transfer one pervasive issue -– banding effects. I assume these can be attributed to compression, but also note that the 115 minute movie has been given plenty of room to breathe on this 50GB disc, so perhaps this gradient posterization is a partially intended effect. Like I said, Wrath of Vajra is a very digital-looking film, seemingly on purpose. A handful of shots appear a hair over-sharpened, creating haloes around highlighted edges, but nothing in line with Well Go’s more unfortunate, early HD efforts.
Well Go has included a mixed Mandarin/Japanese track (a couple of characters are English and French speakers, so a handful of scenes are spoken in English or French as well) and an easily ignored English dub, both of which are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The Mandarin/Japanese track is massive when it sets out to be, specifically during the fight scenes, which are (if you’ll excuse the pun) quite punchy and directionally aggressive (the final showdown and its torrential downpour, is outstanding). The mix is relatively soft during dialogue-heavy sequences, leaving environmental ambience more to the scenes that set up locations – for example, a sequence featuring a boat that brings fighters through rough ocean waters, followed by a foot-trek through a jungle. The dialogue itself is relatively natural; though, like the incidental sound effects, it has been cracked up and laced with reverb to increase overall impact. The lip-sync is a bit wigging when Japanese, English, or French-speaking actors speak in Mandarin. Chen Tao and Wang Bei’s percussion-heavy score makes the loudest impression, including some LFE-shattering drums and some stereo-vibrating horns. I didn’t find the music particularly memorable overall, but some of the fight scene themes were great (perhaps one of the composers handled those and the other the stuff in between?).
- Making Of Featurettes/Cast & Crew Interviews (25:50, HD):
- The Mission – A general EPK, concerning the film’s plot and characters.
- Martial Arts Styles – A more in-depth look at the fighting styles used in the film.
- The Rebirth – Concerning the Shi Yanneng’s training and character arc.
- Fighting: Chapters I, II, and III – Also covering fighting styles and choreography
- Trailers for other Well Go releases
The Wrath of Vajra features three solid fight scenes and some strong performances, but, between long-winded, largely unnecessary exposition scenes and the plot’s general lack of original elements, there’s not a lot more here to recommend it. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray has a couple of minor banding/posterization issues, but I’m not entirely sure this is due to compression side effects. Otherwise, the image quality is quite clean, the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is booming, and the extras include a fair number of EPK-style interviews.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 18th March 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Mandarin/Japanese/English, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English (dub)
Subtitles: English, French
Extras: Making Of Featurettes, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Law Wing-Cheong
Cast: David Kurata, Shi Yanneng, Nam Hyun Joon, Steve Yoo
Length: 111 minutes
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