THE PROTECTOR (TOM YUM GOONG) (Prachya Pinkaew, 2005)
Muay Thai martial artist Tony Jaa leaves his homeland to rescue two elephants entrusted to his care in THE PROTECTOR. Jaa’s character Kham comes from a family which has upheld the ancient tradition of raising and protecting the king’s elephants. When his father is murdered and their animals stolen, Kham travels to Australia to track down the gangster responsible.
Tony Jaa’s first starring vehicle, ONG-BAK: THAI WARRIOR, was a bracing kick of physical stunts and ingenious action scenes. Jaa looked poised to become the next big thing in Asian martial arts cinema, but THE PROTECTOR is a step backwards for the star and his director Prachya Pinkaew.
THE PROTECTOR’S plot is as sturdy as a piece of balsa wood, which wouldn’t have mattered so much if the film had showcased Jaa’s talents better. What made ONG-BAK so exhilarating was seeing him running up walls and doing other crazy moves. Although THE PROTECTOR is essentially an 80-minute fight scene, it’s largely lacking in the eye-popping stunt department.
The only notable sequence in this ordinary film is when Pinkaew uses an unbroken take to follow Jaa as he dispatches dozens of bad guys and makes his way up several floors of the gangster’s restaurant. The camerawork and Jaa’s punching and kicking efficiency mimic a video game, but in shooting the scene wide and in a long take, the director gives an appreciation of the star’s abilities.
At this point Jaa doesn’t display the charisma of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, in part because THE PROTECTOR doesn’t require him to do more than look distressed or angry. His last film was quite funny, but aside from the occasional amusing oddity—the villain signals his X Games assassins by triggering a siren that apparently can be heard through all of Sydney—THE PROTECTOR doesn’t elicit many laughs.
The Weinstein Company is releasing THE PROTECTOR. When he was at Miramax Harvey Weinstein was notorious for reediting and dubbing Asian films for American release. It looks like he’s been at it again. THE PROTECTOR is an inconsistent mix of original language with subtitles and bad dubbing. The film has been rescored by The RZA, and I’d wager there are scenes that have been removed from the original cut. While I prefer that the director’s vision be imported than a studio execs, I don’t think the alterations have done mortal damage to the film. THE PROTECTOR is flawed enough on its own.