Tony Jaa returns after wowing worldwide audiences in ONG BAK with one of the most anticipated martial arts movies in years. Despite minor flaws, Jaa, director Prachya Pinkaew and action director Panna Rittikrai meet or exceed the quality and excitement of their initial collaboration with another series of mind-blowing action unrivaled by anything currently on offer anywhere in the world.
Tom Yum Goong expands on the formula set by its predecessor of highlighting Thailand’s famous Muay Thai martial art and the screen fighting expertise of its leading movie-based exponent Tony Jaa. In this outing, Jaa and his team turn their attention to a variant known as Muay Koshasan, or Smashing Elephant Boxing. Its historical roots form the basis for the film’s simple plot.
The pride a father and son team of elephant protectors share in an opportunity to offer one of their pachyderms to the king of Thailand is shattered when members of a criminal organization kidnap the prized male beast and its young offspring. When Kham (Tony Jaa) discovers his father is wounded and the elephants are missing, he immediately sets out to find them and bring them home.
Kham, however, is no ordinary elephant caretaker. He is descended from a long line of Jaturungkabart, Thai royal bodyguards trained in the powerful Smashing Elephant Boxing technique. What was once used to protect the vulnerable points on war elephants bearing kings of old into battle is now turned on unscrupulous black marketeers engaged in the illegal trade of exotic animals offered up as cuisine for clients with unusual tastes.
After busting up the local scene in Thailand, Kham’s search leads him to the organization’s headquarters in Sidney, Australia’s Thaitown, where they operate a front, a Thai restaurant known as “Tom Yum Goong.”
ONG BAK co-star Petchtai Wongkamlao returns to team up with Jaa once again, this time often speaking in heavily-accented English. He’s Mark, a local police officer who finds himself in deep trouble when a senior officer linked to the criminals frames him for the murder of a corrupt police official and a prominent business executive. Mark and his kidnapped sister are the victims of a plot by the restaurant’s sinister manager Madame Rose (Xing Jing) to take over the entire family business by eliminating her competition.
In a somewhat confused series of events Kham and Mark wind up together hiding out from police and criminals alike while Kham continues his one-man assault on the black market operators. As Madame Rose finalizes her takeover of the organization and prepares to bask in the glow of victory, Kham confronts her and an army of thugs head on in a final bid to recover his cherished elephants, while Mark recovers his sister.
After an intriguing opening that establishes the hero’s background and relationship to the elephants, the story devolves into a wimpy, derivative and sloppy mess of action film cliches, underdeveloped characters and thinly veiled action scene set ups. Prachya Pinkaew apparently didn’t learn much since his previous effort and seems content to let the film’s hefty action quotient pummel every other aspect of the movie into bloody submission. Considering that the film takes most of its cues from Hong Kong’s great ’80s action movies, one shouldn’t expect too much in the way of great acting or a breathtaking plot. The filmmakers are selling one thing only. Yet, once again they have forgotten that even near-mindless action movies require the bare necessities of a serviceable script.
As most of the movie takes place in Australia, near all of the actors apart from Jaa himself speak English to varying degrees. And like some of Hong Kong’s early attempts at adding English dialogue, the effort leaves something to be desired. Unfortunately, the worst offenders are some of the Thai actors, like an accented newscaster who uses bad grammar and Wongkamlao, who as an Australian police officer is practically unintelligible with some of his pronunciations. No disrespect here intended. I don’t speak Thai at all, but if you’re going to do something that can affect the quality and presentation of a movie then you might as well do it right or change the game plan. The same could be said of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON where Ang Lee settled for odd Mandarin pronunciations from some of the lead actors, which generally left mainland Chinese audiences unimpressed.
The film’s only potential female lead, who briefly offers sanctuary to Kham, ends up spending the rest of the movie lurking in the shadows with no lines and little discernable purpose. And although an outsider with little help considering he barely speaks to anyone, Kham races about town unhindered and conveniently popping up at all the right places with the repetitious battle cry of, “where are my elephants?”
The film practically omits connecting or transitional scenes between action sequences. These non-action scenes may seem superficial to genre fans, but are usually necessary to give the action meaning. Otherwise, you end up with nothing but a movie-length collection of stunt and fight sequences that might as well be presented in random order and minus all the costumes, decorated sets, character names, and feeble dialogue.
Most of the aforementioned problems can be tolerated considering the substantial quality and quantity of the action. Jaa, a former stuntman and Panna Rittikrai, a well seasoned action filmmaker seem bound and determined to outperform themselves and in many aspects they do. They established their signature style in Ong Bak with long, complex and highly impressive action sequences devoid of wirework and elaborate CGI that involved liberal use of props, the environment and just about any number of stuntmen willing to endure pain. The ante is upped this time around with even longer takes and more demanding sequences.
Undoubtedly, the scene everyone who sees this movie will talk about is a 4-minute assault on the title restaurant. With a hip-mounted camera in tow and a small army of stuntmen, extras and hidden crew waiting for their cue, Jaa bursts onto the large, multi-level set and proceeds to battle his way up a series of staircases in a single take. It’s a breathtaking fight sequence that challenges the current trend of letting editors and directors assemble action scenes from dozens of multi-angled shots in post-production. It returns to the genre the true art of action choreography and stunt work in its truest and most daring form where the potential for error and real danger grows with each passing frame.
There are three other standout fight sequences that further Jaa’s growing position as the current master of martial arts screen fighting. The first pits Jaa against a mob of extreme sports enthusiasts in a warehouse. The scene evokes some of the best of Jackie Chan’s similar experiments with rollerblades, BMX bikes and 4-wheelers, yet condenses it all into one wild package where Jaa outmaneuvers his florescent bulb-wielding foes.
The next scene in a fiery Buddhist temple flooded with water recalls Jaa’s pit fighting against various martial arts styles in ONG BAK. The difference here is that there are only three opponents and their abilities are even more defined and more formidable. One of the criticisms lobbed against Jaa’s first movie was the lack of opponents with skills commensurate with Jaa’s Muay Thai. That problem is solved when he’s forced to face three masters of their respective arts with very unique and very competent abilities that present Jaa with genuine challenges. The added value is for martial arts enthusiasts to see several distinct styles matched against each other.
Zero Gravity stunt team member Lateef Crowder makes an impressive showing as a Capoeira fighter who uses the free flowing and opportunistic advantages that his style presents to dodge Jaa’s powerful attacks and counter with equally powerful leg sweeps and overhead kicks. Capoeira has only had a few opportunities to be seen on film and Crowder, a gymnast and 12-year veteran of the art performs the best yet. It’s a showy performance art that naturally looks great on film, especially opposite a dynamic performer of Jaa’s caliber. Unfortunately, Crowder suffered an injury during the shoot that noticeably cuts the exchange short.
The follow up is with British wushu artist and JC Stunt Team veteran Jon Foo. He unleashes an impressive series of sword attacks and stylish acrobatic moves that should be familiar to genre fans who have followed the scene since Jet Li introduced China’s national sport to martial arts filmmaking in 1982 with the release of Shaolin Temple. Like Capoeira, wushu is a very performance-oriented fighting style. The only thing missing is seeing both styles working in concert, which might have been the intention of Jaa had Crowder not been injured.
The final opponent in this temple sequence is the most important one for Jaa and his elephant fighting style to face. Aussie’s world class strongman and pro wrestler Nathan Jones, a genuine hulk of muscle and power provides Jaa with his greatest onscreen challenge yet. Jones outclasses him in height, weight, reach, mass, and strength. It’s a true David and Goliath match up that is left unresolved until the finale. Although this finale technically represents another fight in the movie with three more behemoth fighters added, it’s really just a continuation where Jaa continues to search for his larger opponent’s weakness. Failing to exploit a superficial head wound, Jaa falls back on his training for a terrific solution that incorporates using symbolic tools available to him. It makes for a satisfying conclusion to a genuine martial arts movie where the protagonist must rely on his training and knowledge to overcome a seemingly unstoppable opponent.
Another fight sequence worthy of mention takes place right before this finale as Jaa takes on a roomful of thugs. It provides a contrast to his dominant striking moves in that he relies entirely on the stand-up grappling techniques of the elephant boxing variant of Thai boxing to painfully break or dislocate limbs left and right. Some might argue that the scene is overly gratuitous in the volume of opponents Jaa sends to the floor, but it provides a wonderful opportunity for Jaa to display a wide array of grappling moves and positioning mixed with some knee blocks and legwork to really drive home the elegance and efficient power of this martial art.
Looking and acting a little bit like a young Yu Rongguang, up and coming Vietnamese-American stunt actor Johnny Nguyen makes a notable impression as Madame Rose’s leading henchman. He uses a mixture of wushu and other fighting styles to battle Jaa on several occasions. He seems to have been cast as a fighter on par with Kham, but I’m not sold on the idea. While he has good form, charisma and perhaps greater potential as a screen fighter, he lacks the power that Jaa exudes, while not really presenting anything genuinely challenging or creative.
Rittikrai rounds out the film’s fighting action with an explosive speed boat chase through Thai canals that blows any CGI garbage seen in recent James Bond movies clear out of the water. The scene does use limited compositing and blue screens during actor close-ups, but that beats full CGI characters or props standing in for the real thing. This scene also provides a bit of humor and inside joking, which creeps up in other places. Later, a Jackie Chan look-alike makes a brief cameo in what could be interpreted as a humorous passing of the baton, but actually comes off as a cheap exploit.
Pumwaree Yodkamol, the mouthy starlet from ONG BAK makes a brief cameo of her own to offer a quick anti-film piracy message. I’m certain Thai film fans will recognize other familiar faces based on the obvious placement of various Thai extras and bit players. Wongkamlao takes part in a few gags that seem more directed at Thai audiences, but still seem amusing within the context of the movie.
When watching this film one thing is certain, Tony Jaa is the real deal. While ONG BAK provided an excellent debut that in a single stroke catapulted him to the level of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, Tom Yum Goong signals that he’s truly deserving of that distinction. Not only is he an excellent and well-rounded screen fighter capable of collaborating on the orchestration of world class fight sequences, but he appears committed to the greater ideals of his profession. That is, he honors his country and culture while ably promoting the strengths, ideals and history of his chosen martial art. This film lacks some of the care and attention the genre deserves outside of exciting action sequences and slick production standards, but what the film and Jaa’s amazing physical performance in it does offer should be more than enough for action and martial arts enthusiasts to soak up with glee many times over.REVIEW: Protector, The (2005),
Muay Thai • Tony Jaa