The Protector

Cast:
Tony Jaa as Kham
Petchtai Wongkamlao as Mark
Bongkoj Khongmalai as Pla
Xing Jing as Madame Rose
Nathan Jones as T.K.
Johnny Nguyen as Johnny
Lateef Crowder as Capoeira Fighter
Jon Foo as Wushu Fighter
Damian De Montemas as Vincent
David Asavanond as Officer Rick
Sotorn Rungruaeng as Kham’s Father
Amonphan Gongtragan as Goong
Nutdanai Kong as Young Kham

Review:
Truly, the best martial arts film about elephants yet made.

Young Kham (Tony Jaa) has been trained his whole life in the way of the Jaturongkabaht, the King’s Bodyguards who raised and protected the King’s Elephants which served as both the King’s ultimate weapon in battle and symbol of his royal status. In one day, both Kham loses both his father and the last two remaining elephants of his herd, a feat which should certainly put him in the running for suckiest Jaturongkabaht of all time.

All of Jaa’s old cohorts from “Ong-Bak” are back; Prachya Pinkaew returns to the director’s chair and choreographer Panna Rittikrai comes with him to continue his tradition of painfully realistic fight scenes and hard-to-believe-it’s-real acrobatics. Petchtai Wongkamlao co-stars again as well, this time as apparently the only honest cop left in Sydney.

Kham quickly traces his missing elephants to Sydney, following them with a single-minded determination and seeming only to get close to his quarry through chance and unbelievable fortune, both good and bad. “The Protector” falls into one of the most general of all kung fu film plots – wronged warrior out for righteous revenge. Granted, the story isn’t really what people watch these films for in the first place, but movie’s awareness of this fact reaches near post-modern levels as it almost completely leaves out any sense of rhythm, pacing, or character of even the most basic level (Kham really only has one line of dialog, “You stole my elephant!” repeated over and over in different variations), with just slightly less than the minimum story needed for suspension of disbelief to get Kham from one place to another so that he can launch into a dazzlingly choreographed fight sequence, which is naturally where the film shines.

It doesn’t really up the ante from “Ong-Bak” but it does provide the same dynamic, whirling, and downright painful choreography (there is a great joy taken in breaking arms and legs in the film) of its predecessor. Of particular note is a brilliant four-minute sequence where Kham ascends the stairs of a six-story restaurant/crime palace beating up countless stuntmen, scaring bystanders, breaking who knows how much crockery and tossing two unlucky goons over the railing for multi-story falls, all in one completely unbroken steadicam shot. Not every sequence works that well, of course. Pinkaew has a tendency towards high film grain and shaky, almost hand-held, camera work that does serve to give his work a gritty feel but makes some shots impossible to actually see. More often than not though the fight sequences are a joy to behold. One face off against a capoeira expert (Lateef Crowder) is almost like watching ballet. Incredibly violent ballet.

It’s sad, though, that with all the tremendous technical work going on no one bothered to make any effort at an actual story or character. Mark has something of a story as he fights against the corrupt elements of the police department, but most things seem to happen by accident. What attempts there are at story elements to explain evil Madame Rose’s (Xing Jing) incomprehensible power grab utilizing blackmail, poisonous turtle soup and elephants amount to not much more than interminable waiting periods for the next good fight scene. Maybe that’s all they’re supposed to be, but it’s almost insulting how little anyone bothered with anything that doesn’t have to do with kicking or punching. There actually is something to work with; the abduction of nature boy Kham’s elephants (and the simultaneous loss of his father) could be seen as a loss of childhood innocence, and his journey to the city (in this case, Sydney) and into the underworld of crime and sex and all those evil adult things is his violent transition into the world of adults – his quest for his missing elephant a search for a return to childhood – and comments on the destruction of the natural world by men for petty, nearly nonsensical reasons. Of course, that all might be more than a movie like “The Protector” needs and could very well serve to diminish the enjoyment of the film’s good attributes.

It’s not so much that “The Protector” has no story as the incredibly generic way in which it has no story. There’s nothing to make it stand out from any other film of the genre except Jaa’s incredible athleticism. Purists might suggest that is entirely the point, that it is a perfect example of this type of film, and they may well be right. Much like pornography, the story is just the thing you have to fast forward through to get to the good part. Still, if a filmmaker is going to make the effort of trying to put a story in anyway, they could at least make the effort of trying to put a story in.

Ultimately these kinds of movies defy criticism or comment, and don’t really benefit from them. The only way to realistically rate them is on the Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Scale:

Thirteen dead bodies. Four breasts. Mud pit lap dancing. Multiple, multiple, multiple broken bones. Elephant fu. Gong fu. Dirt bike fu. Joe Bob says check it out.

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