A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE PROTECTOR j
½ 

2006, R, 88 mins.

 

Tony Jaa: Kham / Petchtai Wongkamlao: Mark / Xing Jing: Madame Rose / Johnny Nguyen: Johnny /

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew / Written by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee

Never have so many human bones been broken in some many excruciating ways in order to save one’s beloved pet elephant than in Tony Jaa’s THE PROTECTOR. 

There is one scene in particular – near the conclusion of the film – that demonstrates its penchant for examining the most debilitating ways to inflict pain on the body.  During this sequence Jaa dispatches with an incalculable number of adversaries by bending, stretching, and cracking limbs in manners that seemed to defy the very laws of physics.  By the end of this gruesome montage of fetishistic martial arts mayhem, Jaa walks away from the carnage.  A large number of faceless, anonymous henchmen lie on the ground and writhe in pain, holding what’s left of their battered appendages. 

Most martial artists would be content with just defending themselves, but Tony Jaa is another mean-spirited and vindictive animal altogether.  Not content with punching and kicking his way to defending his honor, Jaa instead takes down enemies with such a startling lethality, kind of like he was given a physical demonstration on the uses and abuses of human anatomy.  He does not just break an arm, a leg, or a neck in one stroke.  No, he finds inhuman ways of contorting and warping body parts to the point where his victims look more like bloody pretzels.  Are his methods brutal and uncompromising?  You betcha, but for crying out loud, these guys were offending not only his honor, but that of his elephant, for cripe's sake!

The great Howard Hawks once said that the way to define a great film was to note that they had three great scenes and no bad scenes.  THE PROTECTOR certainly has three great scenes, like the before-mentioned battle where Jaa set a new cinematic record for most dislocations and breaks perpetrated on the enemy.  That scene is followed by a nifty and spirited battle where he has to combat not one, not two, but three super humanly large men that are apparently immovable, even with all of his martial art might.  To make matters worse, a sly little vixen with a whip joins the three behemoths to pound on Jaa.  Let’s just say that the manner with which the Tai warrior defends himself is…well…kind of ingenious.

The third and final great scene of the film occurs in what must be the single longest unbroken shot for an action sequence that I have surely seen.  The single shot – which lasts about four minutes or so – is done all in one unbroken take and shows Jaa enter the lobby of a hotel at the main level and mop the floor with a bunch of evil henchmen.  He then proceeds to the second level and punches and kicks himself through even more evil henchmen.  Then, he keeps going and going and going to the point where he travels up several levels and takes out an incredible number of evil henchmen.  As a pure spectacle piece, this sequence is a virtuoso bit of stunt and action choreography, during which Jaa is there during every frame hurtling himself with reckless abandon and fearless determination.  It’s one of the truly masterfully realized action scenes of recent memory that deserves worthy comparisons with similar scenes of on-screen chaos in chop-sockey classics like DRUNKEN MASTER 2.

However, the three scenes mentioned are all that is really great about THE PROTECTOR.  The film has three great scenes and for each of them there are about a dozen of so wretched ones.  THE PROTECTOR is spectacularly dumb and insipid on a story level, especially considering the sheer level of absurdity and preposterousness of the whole enterprise.  You may remember Jaa from the 2004 film, ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR, which I sarcastically called in my review “…the best film about a Thai martial art warrior searching for his missing Buddha head while battling the minions of an evil underground crime lord that I have ever seen."   I will be equally acerbic (and fair) by calling THE PROTECTOR the best film about a Thai martial art warrior searching for his missing mystical elephant while battling the minions of an evil underground crime lord that I have ever seen. 

I thought that ONG BAK was a real howler on a narrative level, but made up for its unbridled ridiculousness by the incredible showmanship of the young Jaa himself.  THE PROTECTOR offers up much of the same in the sense that it delivers even more furiously choreographed action scenes that highlight the tremendous talents of its main star, a human highlight reel if their ever was one.  However, the few truly awe inspiring action scenes are hinged together and framed by a plot that is so laughably dumb and silly that how the makers did not make it a parody of itself is beyond me.  I have seen some real humdingers in the action genre, but THE PROTECTOR takes the proverbial cake for absurdity.  Honestly, how many kung fu epics have you seen where the hero runs into the bad guy’s fortress, strikes a pose, looks menacing, screams, “Where’s are my elephants,” and proceeds to tear the place up?  Damned if I know.

THE PROTECTOR has been touted as a follow-up to ONG BAK.  Indirect carbon copy would be more apt.  Both films are spectacularly similar.  All one has to do is look at some of the superficial differences.  In ONG BAK a villager sought revenge on those that stole his precious village idol.  In THE PROTECTOR a villager seeks revenge on those that have stolen his precious idol elephant (make that two elephants, and we are not talking figuratively, I mean literal creatures here, folks).  Bangkok is substituted for Sydney in this new film, where the monosyllabic hero says all but three or four sentences in the whole film on his mission to rescue what he values most in the world.  Oh, in both films Jaa is a lethal Thai martial artist that can make you paralyzed with one blow, which definitely is a bonus when one is trying to get back their pet elephant.  If the people at P.E.T.A. had Tony Jaa as their spokesperson, no soul on the planet would ever give an animal a bad look again.

Anyhoo’, the incredibly convoluted and muddled narrative deals with how two precious elephants, which are worshiped by Jaa and his clan for their godlike mystical properties, are kidnapped by smugglers and taken from their homeland into Australia (how smugglers sneak two elephants into another country without attracting attention by customs officials is beyond me).  Essentially, the film is confusing as hell on these details, not to mention whom exactly the bad guys are.  There are several and how they all relate to one is kind of shameless handled by the screenplay.  All I know is that Kham (Jaa) is a plucky country lad that has grow up to manhood with his beloved elephants, not to mention that he has been instructed in the ways of Muay Thai martial arts by his poppa.  In the opening moments of the film dear old dad enters a selection process to have his elephants presented to the king.  Unfortunately for him and Kham, the elephants are ruthlessly kidnapped by underworld slimballs.  Damn them.

After doing some brassy detective work, Kham is able to discover that the two creatures have been shipped Down Under.  With the help of a – get this – a Australian Thai police officer (I kid you not), Kham is able to infiltrate a the secret underground world of Madame Rose, who I think is working with other secret underground heavies that kidnap other animals from around the world and use them for sickening delicacies at their restaurants.  This is the straw that broke the Thai Warrior’s back and – come hell of high water – he will get his elephants back, even if he has to break hundreds of arms and legs in the process.  He does all of that, an each break and twist is reinforced with a gut-churning soundtrack that accentuates each dislocation and tearing of bones to the point where all of Jaa’s opponents start to look like their where made of silly putty. 

Again, the main reason to see this film is for some of its jaw-dropping action, like the four-minute stunner in the multiple story brothel/restaurant, or the scene where Jaa takes on and nearly destroys 50 of Madame Rose’s black suited bodyguards, or that final inventive and brutal battle with the three gigantic, steroid fueled Western brutes.  If these scenes were combined to make a short film, then THE PROTECTOR would be a 15-20 minute masterstroke work.  Beyond that, the film is utterly disposable and hopelessly amateurish.  One action scene in particular, an extended chase sequence that involves speedboats, is so horrendously edited and confusing that it became difficult to make out the participants.  The character of the Thai-Australian officer (played by Phettkai Wongkamlao) is beyond an artificial plot contrivance.  Most of the acting and performances are thinner that an office memo, and the film has a genuine disdain for coherence.  At times, I really had no idea who all of the antagonists were and how they all fit together.  The only really good performances are by the elephants themselves, who are able to emote more that most of their human co-stars.  Then there is the combination of horrible dubbing for some of the supporting roles and subtitles for the Thai star, which are so badly cobbled together that they don't even invoke decent chuckles of disdain.

THE PROTECTOR was one of the most anticipated releases in Asia last year and became a huge smash hit there.  Enter both the Weinstein Company and director Quentin Tarantino to lend their names for North American bankability.  Considering the level of quality that both Weinstein and Tarantino have managed to give us in the past, their reasons for allowing themselves to be aligned with such a mess like THE PROTECTOR is kind of stupefying.  With choppy editing, a beyond-lame story that takes itself way, way too seriously, and performers that lack decent, professional range, the two may wish to rethink their future producing ventures.

But perhaps the biggest problem with THE PROTECTOR - aside from its disdainful and incoherent story and its atrociously and inconsistent dubbed dialogue - is…well…Jaa himself.  He is definitely Jackie Chan’s equal when it comes to performing astoundingly dexterous acrobatics and acts of physical speed that genuinely inspire awe.  Jaa, like Bruce Lee, definitely has an intuitive screen presence and a razor sharp intensity.  Yet, my largest misgiving with him (as I highlighted in my ONG BAK review) is that he is – beyond his death-defying martial arts skills and stunts – an actor of pitifully limited range and appeal.  Jaa is a presence without any inkling of a personality or character buried beneath him.  He’s essentially a drone that you would find in a video game that looks really cool when he takes care of business, but is unreservedly forgettable as a character.  There is no spunk, spirit, and – most importantly – whimsicality to his performance as Kham.  Similar stars like Jackie Chan are worshiped for their action set pieces, yes, but Chan is equally worshipped because he is an affable, fun, and energetic persona that you invest in and like.  Jaa, by direct comparisons, fatally lacks a sense of exuberance.  He’s just a killing machine without much of an arc and after you see him break an arm or a leg for the hundredth time, he slowly looses my interest. 

THE PROTECTOR is as overstuffed of a martial arts spectacular as I’ve ever seen, one that walks a tight wire act between sensational and masterfully implemented stunts to wickedly overwrought and silly storytelling.  The film is yet another triumphant exercise in displaying the unrelenting and machine-like prowess of the 30-year-old Tony Jaa, who throws himself in scene after scene of improbably dangerous stunts.  As a performer of incredible physicality and raw edge, Jaa is a definite sight to behold.  However, beyond all of his martial arts abilities lies a performer of zero charisma and personality, which are two prerequisite traits that have made similar kung fu stars (like Jackie Chan) so agreeable.  By failing again (as he did with ONG BAK) to carve out a memorable screen persona and allowing himself to populate a film that suffers from a ridiculous premise and shoddy pacing, Tony Jaa is going to have to put in some serious cinematic overtime in his next film to garner some action star street cred.  The real shame about THE PROTECTOR is that its main attraction is a real bore outside of his bone crunching abilities.

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