“Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” was hugely popular in certain circles because of star Tony Jaa’s stunning talent for martial arts, gymnastics and acrobatics. He also worked without stunt doubles, wires or computer trickery, making his on-screen feats even more extraordinary.
On the strength of that film, The Weinstein Company snagged U.S. rights for its follow-up, “The Protector,” again starring Jaa and again directed by Prachya Pinkaew. In fact, the Weinsteins loved “The Protector” so much that they chopped 25 minutes out of it, randomly chose scenes and dialogue to dub with atrocious English, and rendered the whole thing nearly incomprehensible. Hurray for the Weinsteins and their devotion to world cinema!
The original Thai version is available on DVD (you can buy it from Amazon here), and I’m curious to watch it and see what was cut out of the American release. There are numerous scenes that end abruptly and others that start with the action already begun. Some of the Thai characters have inexplicably had their dialogue dubbed into English even while other people in the same scene continue to speak in subtitled Thai. What’s more, there are Australian characters who spoke English to begin with who were STILL dubbed with new voices. What, the Australian actors didn’t speak English well enough?
‘Tis a shame so much vandalism has been done to the film, because the bedraggled scraps that remain suggest there was once a loopy, adrenaline-filled fight flick here. What we’re getting is still fun — most of the straight-ahead fight scenes seem to be more or less intact — but it’s often laughable in its incoherence. I fear many viewers won’t realize that’s not how the movie was when it left Thailand and that the damage occurred during shipping.
Here’s what we have: Jaa plays Cam, a lad trained in the art of Muay-Thai, a vicious fighting style that seems to emphasize breaking the arms and legs of one’s opponents. (In one intentionally over-the-top scene recalling one of The Bride’s adventures from “Kill Bill,” Cam cracks about 30 limbs on at least that many enemies, each injury accompanied by a brutal KRRRRK on the soundtrack.) Muay-Thai fighters are especially prized as guardians of the king’s royal elephants, which are believed to have spiritual powers.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, some bad guys kill Cam’s dad and steal his elephants, a father-and-son pair named Por-Yai and Kohrn, whisking them away to Australia, where their fate is unknown. Cam must head south, therefore, to retrieve the pachyderms and avenge his father’s death.
Except for the part where it involves elephants, it’s pretty much your basic Hero’s Journey. Cam remains admirably focused on the task at hand, not stopping to fall in love with a local girl or solve a mystery or any of the other things that often distract heroes. No, what he does is run around Sydney yelling, “Where is my elephant?!”
Most of the plot-oriented sequences — especially a lame subplot involving a Thai-born Australian police detective (Petchtai Wongkamlao) and a ring of dirty cops — are forgettable, often plagued with corny jokes like “My grandmother drives faster than you — and she’s dead!” The movie appears to have been shot on the cheapest, grainiest film available. The acting is not, how shall we say, noteworthy.
But when the fight scenes, choreographed by Jaa himself, kick in, boy howdy. He leaps, he nearly flies, he moves with lightning speed, he executes his maneuvers with precision and fury. Pinkaew avoids extraneous cutting and choppy editing, allowing us to see what Jaa is doing without a lot of distraction. In one ingeniously staged scene, Pinkaew follows Jaa as he fights his way to the top floor of a hotel, taking on opponents, sending people over banisters, breaking through walls — and it’s all shot in one continuous 4-minute take. The amount of work involved in staging such a long, complicated shot is mind-boggling, and that’s aside from the awesomeness of what actually happens in it.
At the end of the film a reporter asks a city official about all the mayhem that’s occurred in the city that day: “Can you comment on reports of a Thai man in a red scarf, and a baby elephant?” So obviously the movie doesn’t want us to take it too seriously, though I do wonder: Once he retrieves his pachyderms, how will Cam get them back to Thailand? You can’t even take mouthwash on an airplane. You think they’re going to let you take elephants? But who knows, before the Weinsteins got their hands on it, maybe the movie explained that.
B- (1 hr., 25 min.; English and Thai with subtitles; )