Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tom Yum Goong (The Protector)

The martial arts movie marathon continues...

The first thing that has to be said about The Protector is that the fight scenes are absolutely amazing! I'll just repeat what any review you might read about this movie is bound to say: the continuous shot of Tony Jaa fighting his way up the spiral stairs in the restaurant is without doubt one of the best martial arts fight scenes ever filmed. The single take approach in this scene and Jaa's athleticism make you to feel like you are right there watching him totally kick ass!

While I can't say enough about that scene, there are plenty of other amazing fights as well. There's a fight in a sleazy Thai 'massage parlor', a street fight pitting Jaa against a bicycle gang, Jaa against a huge black guy with the word 'pray' carved into his chest (and doing some crazy moves) in a burning temple, Jaa against what seems like fifty guys who he incapacitates one after the other in rapid fire movements. There's a let up between the fight scenes, but this movie really does not give you much of a break.

In fact, the international release of The Protector (over three hours in length), is an exhausting experience. It's so crammed with fight scenes and plot that I had to take a break! There's no doubt you will get your martial arts fix satisfied with this movie, and - as near as I could tell - almost the entire thing is real action. While there are a few scenes that could have been cut to make the film a little more digestible, The Protector dishes out action and fight sequences like an sub-automatic machine gun.

However, the film also manages to have a heart at its center. The first half hour or so has no fight scenes but set-up for the motivation of Jaa's character. This beginning is beautifully shot and very touching. From these idyllic Thai village scenes, the movie gradually moves deeper and deeper into a veritable heart of darkness of crime, drugs, prostitution, and black marketeering that will have PETA members crying their eyes out as they cheer Jaa on. If you're an animal right activist, you'll be on your feet during this movie, as Jaa's character is out to save his family's elephants - who are really integral members of his family.  This part of the movie involves some subtext that partially escapes me since I do not entirely understand the significance of elephants in Thai culture. Co-star Petchtai Wongkamlao's voice-over at the end explains some of it (they are a national symbol of Thailand). If so, then there's definitely a lot of imagery in the film around this (at the end an elephant saves Jaa's character in a very surprising way). However, I have no idea if it's a good subtext about traditions and national pride or just overwrought histrionics.

While Jaa is of course front and center and carries the movie very well, he gets quite a run for his money from an unusually strong supporting cast that elevate the movie with their presence. Johnny Tri Nguyen (he starred in and rocked The Rebel) plays a sexy street thug with sneering venom and very nearly steals every scene he's in. Petchtai Wongkamlao (who also co-starred with Jaa in Ong-Bak, The Thai Warrior) is hilarious as a feisty thinks-he's-hip Sydney cop. Xing Jing - a transsexual actress with a fantastic story in real life - plays a character deliciously clawing her way to the top of an organized crime family. Nathan Jones - a 6'11" Australian powerlifter (Fearless, Troy) - seems to be the go-to guy for a big bad white monster muscle, and he provides some real fun fight sequences. And you gotta give kudos to go to the actor who played Rick, the dumb white cop. In a hilarious reversal of racial roles, this guy has the thankless task of playing the side-kick cop who provides comedic relief but, when his character has outlived its usefulness, is unceremoniously capped.

The direction of The Protector is slick, masterful eye candy, again helping to set the movie at the top of the pack of martial arts releases. In the end, The Protector has a lot going for it. If you like martial arts films, it's a must see. If you require a great plot, you'll get that too although the story may be a little too scattered amongst all the side characters and subplots to have maximum impact for everyone. But one thing is for sure: when Jaa is doing his thing, The Protector is pure martial arts magic.

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