I’ve written about a handful of the Dragon Ball Z movies in the traditional way, and that certainly has its merits. But when it comes to the following piece of candy, I like to indulge individually and savor the flavor. For completion’s sake, I’ll just say that the preceding feature, Fusion Reborn, is a totally solid movie and no one should overlook its combination-tastic inclusion on this set, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to wax nostalgic on the most pulse-pounding Dragon Ball Z movie of all time, okay? Hold on to your butts.
Wrath of the Dragon, which sounds like a lost Bruce Lee (or perhaps Bruce Lei) flick, used to simply be “Movie 13” to me, though I bow down to the might of the Japanese title, “Dragon Fist Explosion!! If Goku Can’t Do It, Who Will”. Aside from a handful of Frieza Saga episodes and the first two movies, it was my initial exposure to Toriyama’s world. Yes, I feel at this juncture, thirteen or so years after the fact, I can admit that this was thanks to a shady (naturally) bootleg flea market VHS racket in Louisville, KY. Those tapes molded my memories of the series to this day, from the questionable subs to the unintentionally included slew of raw episodes that would pop on if I left the tape running past the feature for too long.
This entry in the expanded universe of DBZ movies begins with the light-hearted fare one would expect, but doesn’t dawdle much before introducing the big threat. The Great Saiyamen are bustin’ crimes in the city when they run into a red and wrinkly man who’s about one loosened grip away from plummeting off of a precarious structure. Being as ineffably heroic as ever, they help him down, and he immediately begins weaving his plight.
He spins a mighty yarn about a legendary hero named Tapion, and, before the “oohs” and “aahs” can even fade away, he reveals that Tapion is very much alive and well. Only catch is, he’s stuck in this here magical music box and the old man’s having a hell of a time getting him out. So he approaches them with the kind of kooky request befitting any LA area homeless man: will you collect the Dragon Ballls and summon Shen Long to help revive this legendary warrior?
Of course they will, and we all know it’s much, much easier to find the Dragon Balls when you have to do it within the confines of a montage.
If it wasn’t clear that this was a trick from the start, it will be once Tapion emerges from the music box and the old man, who we come to know as Hoi, swings dramatically toward the camera and smiles a wicked smile, eyes glowing like lava. As it turns out, Tapion holds one of the keys to sealing a beast of legend, Hildegarn; one whose presence means certain destruction to whichever planet he happens to be stomping.
When Hildegarn is initially summoned, only his bottom half appears, making this a DBZ kaiju flick with a pair of legs for an enemy. Of course, the rest of Hildegarn is eventually released, and the tale of Tapion and his brother Minoshia sealing him up is told to great effect. The rest of Wrath sees the various Z fighters putting their powers to use in the way I always thought they should week after week: fending off a giant monster. It’s one thing to fight similarly ripped dudes (and the occasional dudette), but imagine a monster-of-the-week Dragon Ball Z series. Balsa wood buildings toppling, “fusion” being redefined and multiplied; it’s enough to make Mike Dent weep.
While it may sound like I’m making fun of certain aspects of this movie, that’s because it really is a blast, and it holds up well to this day. Though Dragon Ball Z never truly “ends” in this world of ours, Wrath of the Dragon is the very definition of going out on a high note as far as the movie series is concerned. It looks incredible on Blu-ray, too, more than making up for my chop-chop-choppy VHS memories. Maybe when Fox completely reboots the live-action franchise, they can squander another 100 million on bringing Hildegarn to (computer-generated) life. I know I’d line up for that one in a heartbeat.
Available: Now (DVD/Blu-ray)
Images © 2009 BIRD STUDIO/SHUEISHA, TOEI ANIMATION