Tom pointed out yesterday that the new Tony Jaa film, The Protector, was in general release. That is, showing in regular theatres in the 'burbs, not just arthouse theatres downtown where I'd never get to see them. Given that I had to miss the theatrical release of A Scanner Darkly due to a limited downtown release, I knew I really wanted to try to see this one. Ong-Bak, the first Tony Jaa action vehicle, is in my collection, as a VCD, no less, and is one of my favorite martial arts movies.
So I cleared it with Jean and ran off to the theatre with money in my sweaty fist.
If Ong-Bak was a classic Asian martial arts movie, heavy on action, stunts and angst, light on plot and character development, then The Protector ... well, let's just say that director Prachya Pinkaew has pared things down to the 'bone' for his second film with Tony Jaa. Ong-Bak might have been twenty percent plot, but The Protector is lucky if it is five percent. After a brief, sentimental, narrated opening montage to set the scene, we are plunged into ten straight minutes of foot and vehicle chases through Thailand, culiminating in two tail-boats shooting off a ramp into a mid-air collision with a helicopter (helicopter go boom). Occasional pauses for motivational plot elements links the following action sequences, but this is condensed Muay Thai, here.
I like the fact that Tony Jaa speaks Thai throughout the film, with his conversations (and shouted challenges, imprecations, curses...) being subtitled for the benefit of the audience. The rest of the actors are ostensibly members of the Chinese mob, or Australian, as the chase (after Jaa's kidnapped friend and ward, a baby elephant) has led to Australia. Chinese tong leader Xing Jing has had the adult mother of said baby elephant poached because the symbol of the elephant will grant her power, like the ancient Khans. Yeah, I know...
Fights include random encounters with masters of other disciplines (wushu, capoeira, some sort of machete master), two or three huge hyper-muscled, adrenaline-drenched thugs who must hail from professional wrestling, and of course, the obligingly serial stream of cannon fodder who rush forward one by one to be mangled by Tony Jaa in the grand Bruce Lee tradition.
There was a lot more shouting, angry aggressive posturing and running attacks in this movie than in Ong-Bak. But there were still a number of the impressive, poetic battles and ballet-like stunts which made Ong-Bak such a joy. In sum, I have to give Ong-Bak the crown, but I'm just happy to see this crew getting wide-release treatment, and hope that when they find their stride again, they are allowed to debut in the 'burbs again.
P.S. - Jackie Chan had a movie called The Protector in 1985, a rather sad attempt to break into the U.S. film market. So it's amusing that he does a ten-second uncredited walk-on where he bumps into Tony Jaa at the airport. Jacky is still the king, but he pays his respects to the young pretender.