We all have a handful of movies that seemingly resonate with us more strongly than anyone else in the world – not films that we would call underrated, we all have plenty of those, too; ones that just feel almost as if they were tailor-made to blow just one person’s expectations right out of the water. As someone who writes about movies, you’d probably guess that I have a few myself specifically within the martial arts genre, and you’d be one-hundred percent right. So today, I’d like to shine the spotlight on one that I’ve given a lot of thought to, 2013’s “The Wrath of Vajra“.
I’ve revisited it quite a bit over the years, and each time I’ve not only come away from it a bigger fan than I was before, but also found new things about it that stand out more with repeated viewings. After revisiting and re-analysing it repeatedly, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve grown into possibly the world’s biggest fan of “The Wrath of Vajra” and now after much thinking and pondering, I feel I’ve finally found the best way to articulate why that is. So, strap in and join me for a metaphysical dive into martial arts film analysis, as we prepare to go all-in on revisiting “The Wrath of Vajra”!
Epic scope and scale
It’s the first thing about “The Wrath of Vajra” that jumps out at you without even seeing the film. To put it simply, the film looks and feels epic. From its sweeping orchestral score to the Colosseum-like arena in which the characters do battle, “The Wrath of Vajra” is clearly gunning to be remembered as the “Ben-Hur” of martial arts films, a lofty aspiration that one need only put on the trailer to comprehend.
“The Wrath of Vajra” is hardly alone in martial arts films that have strove to adopt a sense of immense grandeur; Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “The Quest” and Phillip Rhee’s “Best of the Best 2” also come to mind. What ultimately makes it such an indispensable asset to all of them is in how much it not only enlivens the action onscreen, but makes it feel important to the viewer in a very specific way.
The setting of “The Wrath of Vajra” is a vast, expansive arena where warriors face each other in battles to the death, a setting that’s frankly quite underutilized in the martial arts genre per se, but the film uses that to its full advantage by having the setting serve as the foundation for the sheer sense of enormity it adopts. When coupled with the soundtrack and the cinematography put to use in the fight sequences (more on those in a moment), we’re emotionally invested in a manner that’s hard to achieve, and even harder to do well. We’re not just captivated by the events onscreen, but the way the film communicates them makes it feel like what we’re seeing harnesses some major gravitas -that what we’re witnessing is not only an exhilarating tale of good versus evil, but one that matters.
Watch “The Wrath of Vajra” again, especially the last twenty minutes including the final fight sequence, and you’ll notice something – namely, that the movie wants us to believe that the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance. Think about just how rare that is in a film that doesn’t involve an alien invasion or some kind of post-apocalyptic war, and not only do the film’s “Ben Hur”-like aspirations become clearer, but also that it couldn’t have hoped to achieve them without establishing a setting and a tone that feels epic and grand from the very first scene.
Martial arts lore
“The Wrath of Vajra” is a much more dense and layered film than meets the eye and the first place we need to see is right in the title. The word “Vajra” is a Sanskrit term that translates as both “thunderbolt” and “diamond”, but it goes even deeper than that. We also find the term within the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism likens the experience of enlightenment to a thunderbolt, along with the subset of kung fu, “jing gang quan”, or The Vajra Fist. You can see Indian Shaolin master Kanishka Sharma practicing the form below.
All of this is ample evidence that “The Wrath of Vajra” is delving much deeper into the philosophical and esoteric lore of martial arts than we usually see today. The film opens with our hero, K-29, played by Shi Yan Neng, displaying his mastery of the Vajra fist and a specific (fictional) technique known as the “17-second Deadly Moves”. It might take a little pondering to realize just how much such things as ancient martial arts lore, Shaolin monks, and fictional fighting techniques capable of slaying an enemy with minimal effort have fallen out of vogue, but each was a staple of martial arts films throughout the 70’s and 80’s, and “The Wrath of Vajra” is one of the surprisingly few major martial arts films, especially those of Chinese/Hong Kong origin, to give them a very welcome revival.
However, it isn’t just for the sake of resurrecting some beloved chop-socky tropes that “The Wrath of Vajra” brings these elements to the forefront, but they firmly embody a deeper symbolic importance within the film. The villainous Hades cult, taking its namesake from the Greek God of the underworld, embodies a primordial hell on Earth, building a colossal arena where children are kidnapped to be sculpted into killing machines and warriors are forced to battle each other to the death until the strongest remains to continue Hades’ conquest across all of Asia. In our hero K-29, whom we later come to know by his real name of Huzi, we see a former conscript of Hades return to the arena as a monk enlightened through his tutelage at the Shaolin Temple, and transformed into a living embodiment of the Vajra in both mind and body. And, like a thunderbolt from the sky, he descends into the hellish quarter of Hades to rescue its victims and offer a chance of enlightenment for its followers corrupted by their indoctrination into a life of violence. Which brings us at last to the final crucial element of “The Wrath of Vajra”.
It’s one thing to see an absolutely awesome fight sequence, but it’s even better to feel one “Don’t think! FEEL”, as Bruce Lee once said. Making the viewer feel the impact of every strike is a concept that I like to call “internalized action”, and its typically accomplished by orchestrating the action in such a way that the audience viscerally recoils with an audible “Oooohh!” whenever its clear that a character has really just had their bell rung. “The Wrath of Vajra” is an absolute pro at weaving the brutal reality of what a punch in the face feels like with the artistic beauty of our hero’s mastery of kung fu. While the film displays this consistently well throughout, its best exemplified in K-29’s face-off with the towering Tetsumaku Rai, which holds a place of honor on KFK’s list of Top 10 David vs Goliath Movie Fights, in which our hero takes not a single hit and leaves his gargantuan enemy a hammered bag of meat by the end.
However, “The Wrath of Vajra” internalizes the action in a few other ways as well. In every fight sequence in the film, the action moves to a close-up of fists or feet striking the often exceptionally well-defined bodies of our combatants in slow motion while their flesh ripples from impact, driving home the sheer destructive power of each blow significantly more. By the end of the film, you feel like you’ve had your own clock cleaned with how much “The Wrath of Vajra” has gone out of its way to demonstrate what kind of damage a powerful hit to the face can do!
The film also introduces another technique for internalizing action, one that I’d frankly been waiting to see for years in its sequences of K-29 and the villain of the film, Kurashige Daisuke, (played by Steve Yoo) displaying their respective prowess against a group of training dummies. In each sequence, we transition into our hero and villain’s minds to see them battling live enemies, bringing us closer to each of them by showing how deeply they’ve, well, internalized their training.
The mind of course, is the most powerful weapon of all in martial arts, and we see the hero and the villain of the film have each honed theirs to perfection, which pays off well in their final battle to the death. And, to put it much more simply, these are all just really stunning ways to put a fight sequence together!
“The Wrath of Vajra” is a much more layered film with a much deeper approach to wowing its audience with incredible action than you might anticipate at first glance. Through its blend of epic scope, scale, an abundance of martial arts lore, and its approach to internalized action, it’s become one of the movies I probably ‘dig’ more than anyone else. If you haven’t recently, check it out for yourself again with all the above in mind – you just might have the same epiphany hit you, like a thunderbolt of enlightenment right out of the sky!