Both “The Exorcist” and “Enter the Dragon” came out in 1973, igniting their respective genres at the box-office as never before. So you’d think more than a few enterprising souls would have tried to combine demonic-possession chills and fighting-action thrills. But apart from 1984’s flabbergasting camp classic “Ninja III: The Domination” — with Lucinda Dickey as an aerobics instructor who’s suddenly from hell — it’s hard to think of much in that vein before new arrival “The Divine Fury.”
This Korean import, releasing on about a dozen U.S. screens, features an MMA fighter battling his own demons while helping a priest free the afflicted of supernatural parasites. Jason (aka Joo-hwan) Kim’s film is a slick concoction that affords moderate guilty-pleasure fun for a while, though it goes on too long to diminishing effect. Nonetheless, a sequel is duly promised at the close.
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His mother having died in childbirth, little Yong-hoo has only his father (Seung-joon Lee), a man so upstanding and kind you know he won’t survive the first reel. Indeed, he is soon dead after the routine traffic stop of a vehicle that turns out to bear a glowing-eyed, presumably demon-possessed couple. Raised Catholic, our wee hero angrily renounces his faith after prayer has failed to leave him with even one living parent. And he renounces it with a vengeance, actually braining a priest with a thrown cross at dad’s funeral.
Twenty years later, as an adult now played by Park San-jun, Yong-hoo channels that rage as an undefeated pro mixed-martial arts competitor. Spurning God, it seems, has laid him open to worse influences, because upon spying his opponent’s Christ tattoo, he hears a voice saying, “God killed Dad! Get revenge! Revenge!!” and nearly beats the guy to death. On the plane home, he dreams of being burnt with a crucifix, then awakens with an actual stigmata-like hand wound. Back home in Seoul, a spider-like spirit attacks him in his sleep.
These things are worrying, so our hero consults a blind child medium who takes one “look” at him and says “You’re screwed. You’re covered with demons.” That’s a rare moment of humor in a movie that otherwise takes itself verrry seriously, particularly once Yong-hoo reluctantly starts assisting aged, frail, Max von Sydow-like Vatican envoy Father Ahn (Sung-Ki Ahn) in expelling demons from other unfortunates in the city.
Though compelling enough at first (if never very scary), “The Divine Fury” soon settles into a certain narrative monotony as the protagonists simply move from one possession case to another. Among them are a young woman subjected to some very Linda Blair-like torments, then a bullied boy at a Catholic orphanage. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Ji-sin (Do-Hwan Woo), the impresario of a sleek local discotheque and a kinda-sorta Satanist who maintains eternal youth by sacrificing souls to a “sacred serpent” demon. It is he whom our hero will eventually have to defeat in rather disappointingly ordinary mano-a-mano battle, despite such CG fillips as a literal fist of flame.
At over two hours, all this takes far too long, frittering away the frights and fun in too much somberly nonsensical dialogue and incongruous maudlin moments (underlined by Koo Ja-wan’s score). There is certainly some entertainment value in the usual hash made of Christian beliefs in such an Eastern genre exercise, with arbitrary superpowers granted to such talismanic objects as crucifixes and holy water. You might also wonder why the heck the atheistic hero’s kickbox-y mojo would have any effect on evil spirits unfazed by such officially blessed totems. But this is not the kind of movie where it is useful to ask such questions. Better to pass the time counting salutes to other horror films, among which “The Birds,” “Suspiria” and “The Omen” each receive a passing nod.
Despite its longueurs, “The Divine Fury” is sufficiently atmospheric and polished in the packaging departments, with Lee Bong-Hwan’s production design a notable plus. The leads are reasonably charismatic within one-dimensional roles, so it’s a bit surprising when a closing-credits tag sequence announces, “Father Choi will return in ‘The Green Exorcist’” — passing the torch to a fraidy-cat younger priest (played by Woo-sik Choi) who had only played a minor role here. If there’s going to be a franchise here, it’s going to need more lurid disco lighting and serpent-demon-fu, not more dully earnest spokespersons for cross-culturally watered-down quasi-Catholicism.