2006Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Xing Jing
aybe it’s because I read the Wu-Tang Manual for the first time last week. Maybe it’s because I saw the words Quentin Tarantino Presents, directly next to music by the RZA on the poster billing. Maybe it’s because director Prachya Pinkaew skillfully executed some of the best action sequences you’ll see in a movie all year. Or maybe it’s because Tony Jaa seems to be locked into a death-match with Jet Li to become the heir to Jackie Chan’s throne (this film even has a cameo from Chan himself). Either way, I couldn’t help but leave the theater with the unshakeable impression that The Protector was all sorts of awesome.
A disclosure: I’m not even a big fan of martial arts flicks. I imagine if I was, I’d probably find the whole thing that much more dazzling, as much of the movie is devoted to the basic premise behind all movies of this stripe: kicking ass. But even neophyte martial arts moviegoers can find something to like in this film, an American version pared down from the longer Thai version, entitled Tom Yum Goong. Like many martial arts movies, The Protector is a revenge flick based around the concept of honor. The story begins with poachers stealing a pair of sacred elephants, highly prized to the family of Jaa’s character, Kham. His family has protected the holy elephants for generations, and judging from flashbacks shown several times throughout the film, Kham himself has a deeply meaningful connection with the pair of pachyderms.
Leaving his homeland to track down the elephants in bustling Sydney, Australia, Kham finds himself embroiled in a murky, but interesting drama involving the aforementioned poaching and an international drug and gambling ring led by a local Asian mafia, run by a woman named Rose and her sidekick Johnny. If this seems convoluted, it’s because it is. But for some reason, the plot’s lack of clarity never matters much, as the compelling film manages to make its audience admire the passion and courage of Jaa’s Kham.
Chalk this up to the very capable direction of Pinkaew, who instinctively seems to know the exact second between lingering too long on a shot, (making it seem heavy-handed and forced), versus imbuing it with enough of a feel to make a point. Additionally, each scene is beautifully framed, whether it’s the exotic, almost sepia-tones of the scenes shot in Thailand, or the way in which Pinkaew captures the helter-skelter feeling of a crooked Sydney. The fight scenes are immaculately constructed, particularly one in which Kham fights a giant inside a Buddhist shrine erupting in flames. And of course, the RZA provides a stellar soundtrack, albeit one more understated than you’d expect.
However, the real reason anyone is going to like The Protector stems from Jaa’s unparalleled ability in the martial art form known as Muay Thai. Jaa might not have the wit of Jackie Chan but he certainly has the moves. In the course of the film, Jaa performs a dazzling array of stunts: standing upside down on one arm delivering fierce scissor kicks, shattering shoulders with lightning twists and blows, even crushing his enemy’s tendons with elephant skeletons, among many others.
The film isn’t perfect, of course. There are patches of dialogue that seem overly simple for even a martial arts film, and Kham’s relationship with the elephants almost crosses the line into Disney territory. Yet in spite of all of the reasons to roll your eyes and disregard the film, you never do. You’re too busy being sucked into its bright spectacle, its simple but powerful comic-book themes and its timeless messages of honor and redemption. The Protector might not be the most brilliant martial arts films you’ll ever see, but it’s definitely among the most entertaining.
The Protector is playing in theaters across the country.