When it comes to a certain kind of film, audiences almost always know what they’re in for based on who’s distributing it. Arthouse drama or fantasy? The mind goes to A24. Family-friendly in live-action or animation? First thought: Walt Disney Studios. A mix of genres that are pleasing to a variety of audiences? Pick a major studio. If you’re any kind of martial arts fan in the United States, then you’ve got to know about Well Go USA. Their films aren’t always as recent as other distributors in terms of when the film premieres to when it’s released here, but there’s almost always something about them that startles the imagination. Take 2021 Oscar nominee Better Days, a young adult adaptation which explores the academic and social pressures of adolescents in Hong Kong. It is, of course, far more complicated than that, which is to be expected from any film that comes to the U.S. thanks to Well Go. First available through streaming service Hi-YAH!, first time director Kensuke Sonomura’s and writer Jiro Kaneko’s HYDRA is no different as this martial arts thriller takes a simple premise and explodes it into a mountain of intrigue.
Takasahi (Masanori Mimoto) is a quiet man working as a chef at a restaurant run by the daughter, Rina (Miu), of his old friend. She thinks he’s there to help run the place since her father’s death, when he’s really there to keep an eye on her. As the same trouble that took her father from her starts to creep closer, Takashi is forced to return to a life he turned his back on. Can he keep his past secret and keep her safe or is everything about to come bursting out into the open.
When it comes to Well Go releases, you never what you’re going to get know until you press play. It could be a screwball comedy homage like Enter the Fat Dragon (2020), a drama like the aforementioned Better Days, a thriller like Furie (2019), or a mixed genre release like Takashi Miike’s First Love (2019). Such is the same with HYDRA, which sounds like The Man from Nowhere (2010) on paper, but plays out more delicately, like Zhang Yimou’s Shadow (2019). I kid you not, outside of a stunning opening sequence that sets a chilling tone for the remainder of the film, there’s not another single fight until roughly the 48-minute mark of a 77-minute movie. Between the first and second kurfuffle, there’s nothing but conversation and intrigue. This will frustrate folks looking for more consistent throwdowns between conversations, but what this does is allow the world to breathe and the motivations for the characters to shed the vestiges of the shadows and step into the light. Admittedly, there’re so many threads to untangle that the final feels unfinished, a little more than a prequel to a longer, more satisfying story, but what an introduction it is. It’s rare to see a film where the director and writer care as much about the emotional motivations as the action, offering no more or less than is needed. Could HYDRA be longer? Absolutely. Yet it does its job splendidly as it is.
Part of what helps HYDRA stick the landing is the execution of the action sequences which will leave your jaw on the floor. The film employed three fight choreographers — Sonomura, Mimoto, and Naohiro Kawamoto (Blade of the Immortal) who pulls double-duty with a small role — each with their own experiences in front and behind the camera. Most of the little things that signal a first-time director are absent in the fights and are the best things about the film, without question. They each consider the space, motivations, and character profiles so that everything falls in line with the logic within HYDRA. For instance, each of the fighters are presented as elite assassins, able to do the kinds of jobs other highly trained individuals cannot. For some, this training went hand-in-hand with being an orphan and trained in isolation (though this last part is suggested and not overtly expressed). Because of this, the fights are entirely wordless, relying on the physicality of the performer to taunt, intimidate, or otherwise communicate intent. There’s no jawing on about missions or attempts to get into someone’s head. There’s just the fight; fights which are quite literally blink-and-you’ll-miss-details affairs. Whether it’s watching Mimoto take on an aggressor or the aforementioned opening sequence, each physical entanglement is distilled to its essence in a way that elevates it above fights in higher budget films like the bathroom sequence or final throw down in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). Big words mean nothing if you can’t hold your own and Mimoto, Naohiro, and Sonomura ensure that each actor is more than capable of communicating how deadly each of the aggressors are with the kind of speed, ferocity, and precision that induces audible gasps and instant admiration. Whether HYDRA as a whole feels incomplete, these fight sequences are the definition of “worth the price of admission.”
What’s disappointing about HYDRA is how unfinished it feels. There’s no sign in the film of an impending sequel, though one is certainly warranted, so the fact that a great deal of the larger side of the narrative is unaddressed leaves the audience with a sense of longing. The conflict central to the character Takashi is closed, but the larger issues within the world of the film are not. This is what heightens the sense of an abridged cinematic experience. That said, should a sequel come from this same director, writer, and stunt team, without the need to set up the world as HYRDA does, a follow-up could have The Night Comes for Us (2018) levels of insane action.
If the above sounds appealing to you, you can straight-up purchase HYDRA in physical and digital formats once it releases on July 20th. However, be forewarned that it contains zero bonus materials. More often than not, Well Go releases do come with some form of behind the scenes material to expand on or explore the style of the film. This was great for Gundala (2019), which focused on narrative and action sequences, but is absent in recent releases like Silat Warriors: Deed of Death (2021) and Undercover Punch & Gun (2021). If I were to speculate, the pandemic may make it difficult to include additional material, new or recorded on-set, but as the film first released in 2019, it’s more likely that either nothing was made or inclusion wasn’t part of the home release distribution deal. Whatever the reason, the home viewing experience is lessened without those materials. Personally, I would watch a good, in-depth featurette on the staging and execution of the fights. Some truly mind-boggling stuff goes down exemplifying the difference between main stream action films (ex. Mortal Kombat (2021)) and Asian cinema.
The above isn’t meant to sound like a sales pitch, so much as it is to make plain that if you’re a martial arts fan, HYDRA’s got the goods. Even when the performances from the cast get a little large, eschewing a more natural delivery for something cinematic, there’s something intriguing about the world they live in that makes you want to spend more time there. Mimoto doesn’t exactly captivate as the stoic Takashi when he’s alone, but due to the small choices he makes when interacting with others, something comes alive under the surface that fascinates. Combined with fights that dazzle in their execution, there’s no way to leave HYDRA without wanting more.
HYDRA Special Features
- Well Go USA Previews
Available for streaming via Hi-YAH! July 2nd, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital July 20th, 2021.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s official HYDRA website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.