The Protector/Tom Yum-Goong (2005, Prachya Pinkaew)
There are films that exist to provoke, to make one ponder and provide intellectual stimuli. Other films are better suited for the purpose of entertainment, while still preserving some sense of deeper layers and resonance. Maybe ‘thought provoking’ would be serving them too much credit, but we know there is a little bit more to them than meets the eye. Then there are the movies which, whether by design or for lack of strength in the departments of writing, acting or direction, that are solely available for people to rejoice in the fun, the zany and the visceral. The Protector falls in this last category, given how it lavishly displays its star's remarkable athletic talents all the while abandoning everything else which is supposed to make a movie, well, a movie.
Prachya Pinkaew’s film follows Kham (Tony Jaa), who grew up in the jungles of Thailand with his family. They were members of a community that engaged in a long standing Thai tradition of upbringing elephants, a tradition that goes back several hundreds of years. As a young lad his friendship with his family’s elephant Por Yai grew exponentially as his mastery of Thai martial arts, which he practiced during his teenage years and into early adulthood. Upon learning that their elephant may be a genuine white elephant, in which case the animal is to be offered as a gift to the king, Kham and his father take Por Yai and his calf Kohm into the city during a great festival to be inspected. The day’s promising start morphs into shock and horror as the group posing as elephant experts are in fact part of a black market of elephant hunting. Kham’s father is shot dead and both animals are taken away. Kham’s initial sadness is quickly replaced by a furry that no living man would ever wish upon their worst enemy.
The protagonists journey to reclaim his two elephants (which he essentially views as genuine members of his family) goes through Sidney, Australia, where Kham and a local Thai-born police officer (Petchtai Wongkamlao) discover the root of a massive operation involving the wrongful hunting andslaughter of Thai wild animals who are served for the upper crust of Australian society at a fine cuisine restaurant. The progenitors of the action scenes in The Protector are star Tony Jaa and his mentor Panna Rittikrai, who went above and beyond what audiences often get in their martial arts heavy films. In no way do I mean to belittle titles such as Fist of Legend (fantastic), Legend of Drunken Master (great) or the more recent Ip Man (very good), but the physicality present in Jaa’s ‘performance’ throughout this movie defies believability. The DVD cover art proudly states that no computer generated effects or any stunt cords were used during the filmmaking process. In essence, when the viewer watches Tony Jaa jump kick five feat in the air to pop a street lamp…he really did that. I am not going to elaborate in the specifics in each fight scene. What exactly would be the purpose of such a task? Do you want to read about what Tony Jaa can do or do you want to see it for yourselves? The answer to that question should be obvious for any martial arts film fan, no exceptions. Were I to, even briefly, highlight some of the insane moments that had me gasping, laughing and chocking on my cereal, I should the chase sequence in the hanger where Jaa is pursued by people on roller blades and motor bikes, the single-shot super brawl as Jaa runs and flips his way up about 5 stories and the pre-final brawl in which Jaa engages perhaps 30 people in combat and makes certain to break more than a few bones in every single opponent he faces.
What struck me as I experienced the raw and coldly precise martial arts maestro that is Tony Jaa was how a lot of comedy can be found in such action sequences. There are moments of such sheer brilliance, such magical bravura that laughter was my immediate reaction. I know not if others reacted the same way as I. Am I alone in a strange group who discover borderline comedic pleasure when action stars perform death defying stunts and, not content with merely doing them, accomplish said stunts with a level of flare that can only denote a god-like mastery of the given discipline? I suspect that the realization that Tony Jaa is moving like a Liu Kang in the Mortal Kombat video games but not actually in a video game is difficult for my mind to fully comprehend. My grey cells aren’t certain if I should take it all seriously and admire the man’s talents like we admire athletes at most sporting events (clapping, some cheering), so the default reactions are chuckles and some laughter. I don’t think I found the action in the movie genuinely funny per say, but everything was so visceral and unimaginable that I could not help it.
For the praise one can shower The Protector with for its awe inspiring fight choreography, a few lines must be reserved for what’s left lying in the dust, mainly, story and character. I will be the first to admit that the main focus of a movie of this nature is to excite the audience with action, something it succeeds at with flying colours. That being said, the quality of acting and the effort put into creating a story fit for such a wild adventure in the jungles of Thailand and the streets of Sidney is appalling. Virtually all of the supporting players and villains interpret their roles with either overt sneer or amateurish drama skills. What makes this all the more disappointing is how the focal point of Kham’s motivation is not without interest. In The Protector we have a character who lives in the Thai jungles and who partakes in a rich, unique and fascinating part of Thai history. The country’s love for elephants and the reasoning behind such adoration is given a tiny bit of light and puts Kham’s mission into context. His bond with the elephants Por Yai and Kohm, while maybe a bit odd to Westerners, is also worthy of a decent story. There is the original DNA of a worthwhile tale somewhere under all the layers of brutal bone crushing, but the script is far too clumsy to mould anything remotely interesting. There a few scenes featuring newscasts which attempt to tie in what Kham is after with the current state of illegal animal trading, but much like everything else in the movie (once again, other than the fighting), they’re boring, poorly written and poorly acted. Even the lone character, Mark the Thai-born cop, who could have possibly served as comical relief quickly becomes more annoying than tiresome after some initial laughs.
For movie lovers who only have the patience for films that can balance story, character, direction and action as opposed to those that tilt their efforts heavily in favour of only a single one of those elements, The Protector is a very tough sell. The action is unquestionably some of the best one will ever find in a martial arts film, but everything else is a massive letdown. When all said and done however, Tony Jaa and his skills are the main selling points here, and to that degree The Protector is literally a knockout.