Someone get Tony Jaa a Thai-English dictionary.
Tony Jaa hit North American consciousness in 2003 with the cheesy but exciting Ong-Bak. For all its huge flaws, Ong-bak had a freshness and energy that had been missing from martial arts films since Jackie Chan first burst onto the western world. It was beautifully coordinated, intelligently shot (I’m particularly fond of the “stunts in slow motion from multiple angles” technique they used) and unique. Jaa was just DIFFERENT, using different moves – which may or may not have been “real” Muay Thai but at least LOOKED as devastating as they were portrayed to be. That Jaa was also young, beautiful, athletic, proficient and smart enough not to do more than he was capable of helped his sudden rise considerably.
But Jaa is going to land in some huge pot holes on the road to stardom if he doesn’t make some fundamental changes to his movies and right bloody quick at that. Each separate pitfall is lovingly enshrined in Jaa’s 2005 film The Protector.
As movies go, it’s … well, it’s bad. Most of it is boring. In much the same way that Heath Ledger recommended men uncomfortable with homosexuality leave the room whenever he gets into a tent in Brokeback Mountain I would highly recommend fast forwarding through any scene in The Protector that involves the following:
1. White folk speaking
2. Any Thai male not Tony Jaa speaking
3. Tony Jaa speaking
4. All scenes with a woman speaking
Basically, just watch the stuff with fights and elephants.
Yeah, elephants. That’s what he’s protecting – the royal Thai elephants. I’m very, very pro guys who protect elephants. I prefer elephants to people. Elephants are kinder and smarter, generally. Seeing that this was what the movie was ostensibly about made me happy.
Here’s the plot: bad guys kill Jaa’s father, steal his father’s elephant, steal his baby elephant and kill the baby elephant’s mother (not in that order). Jaa must go to Australia to find the elephants (baby and daddy). There seems to be a sub plot about corruption and racism in the Aussie police as well as a power struggle within a Tong family (or something) but I paid no attention. There were white folks and women speaking. Everyone else some how managed to be Thai or speak it. Is there a huge Thai community in Sydney? I know there’s a huge Vietnamese one, which made the main henchguy being Viet understandable and acceptable. But Thai?
So we have the first two problems right there: the script of this movie is actively bad, confusing and horribly paced. For all that most movies are awful, there are many, many good screen writers in this world who can compose witty dialogue and plots more interesting than this one. But MOST of those people work in English. In much the same way the James Bond keeps running into guys who just don’t, you know, shoot him, Jaa keeps running randomly into people who speak Thai (Jaa’s actually of Cambodian descent, and his real name is Panom Yeerum by the way). This is silly and requires sub-titles, not good unless you’re making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and can pretend it’s an art film.
There are only three reasons to watch this movie in the end:
1.The opening 15 or so minutes, from Jaa’s character as a child to the elephant chase scene. I swear to god, there’s a chase scene through a crowded Thai holiday market between a truck and the male elephant. I am in freaking AWE of the director’s AD team. The logistics of that scene alone would exhaust most people and it was just an opening throw-away. I would have loved to be in that production meeting: “ … and then we’re going to have the bull elephant chase the pickup through the crowd and knock some stuff over. Okay, so the next scene-“ “Excuse me, did you say you wanted the elephant to chase the truck?” “Yes” “Through the crowd?” “Yes” “Through the packed market crowd?” “Yes?” “And HOW much liability insurance do we have?” (sound of 2nd AD sobbing the in back ground)
2.The second major fight scene which I refer to as “Warehouse Ninja X-Gamers Battle!”. Again, I kid you not, Jaa fights a herd of ninja X-gamers in a warehouse. Not only are these people apparently summoned from all over Sydney by whistle, not only do they prefer to fight on rollerblades, motocross bikes, small ATV’s and pedal bikes, not only that, but their preferred group weapons are – discarded florescent light tubes. This – strictly from a reusability stand point – seems a tad eccentric, but they do go smashy-smashy very satisfyingly.
The absolute highlight of this scene was in the trailers for the film: Jaa running up the glass wall as the ATV burst through it. And it’s spectacular. It’s well shot. It’s well edited. Even the sound editing is awesome, with all ambient noise but for Jaa’s shoes squeaking on the glass gone. It’s sweet..
And it’s been DONE BEFORE. All atmosphere, no substance.
3. Lastly, the second to last fight, in a burning Buddhist temple with several inches of water from the sprinkler system on the ground that turns into a style vs. style battle with an uber hot Capoeira-ist, a white Wu Shu sword dude and – and this was an interesting choice – a pro rassler. A freaking HUGE pro rassler. Who beats Jaa and is interrupted by the police.
Pro rassler dude shows up with equally huge friends in the final fight scene. As finales go it was … bizarre, stupid and generally uninspired. Bits of it were interesting, since the beginning shows a nice demo of the “Inverse Ninja Law” (wiki entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stormtrooper_effect) and the major villain chick has a whip which is cool. But there is a gratuitous hammer toss of a baby elephant, which made me squirm.
Yes, I said gratuitous hammer toss of a baby elephant. It is likely to by the first and last instance of me getting to write that in a review. I hope so, since it’s really not kosher to huck baby elephants around (even CGI baby elephants). These are seriously big dudes Jaa is fighting though.
Let’s see … Jaa knows elephants are vulnerable from below and at the tendons (he has some freaky flashback/past life experience giving him this knowledge about half way through the film). He’s losing against a bunch of huge dudes … like, elephant huge. I wonder what he’s going to do …. Hmmm …
No matter what you just thought, I can guarantee it was not “he straps jagged chunks of elephant femur to his arms and fights the huge dudes with them and their sharp points”. He straps jagged chunks of the flensed skeleton of his father’s beloved “perfect elephant” to his forearms and fights with them. I am STILL having the willies from that one a week later.
Actually, the instant we hit Australia I knew at least one of the elephants was dead meat. Aussies just don’t get involved in happy endings.
Anyway, as finales go it was creepy where it could have been inspiring and flat where it should have been exciting (Jaa does his high leap/knee strike thing off a skyscraper roof onto a helicopter and you think “eh”).
This cleverly leads me into my biggest criticism of the movie and Jaa. He’s forgotten his roots.
The fight scenes look like they were lifted from Jackie Chan films. Jaa is athletic, acrobatic and common. One of the things about Ong-Bak that was exciting was the choreography of difference. There just wasn’t anyone doing those double knees, jumping elbows, that sweet powerful “Muay Thai” stuff. Jaa looked strong, overwhelming, unstoppable, unusual. Now he looks like everyone else. There is a intricately crafted running fight/chase in The Protector shot in several very long continuous takes from the ground floor of a building up many flights of stairs with different moves on each level … hey … that sounds familiar doesn’t it? Didn’t Bruce Lee do something like that?
There is a fine line between homage and rip-off and Jaa’s just not crossing it FAR enough (as they did in Shaolin Soccer) or is seemingly unaware of the conflict. I suspect the issues lies at the heart of a problem that all artists and artisans have: the assumption that because they are bored of what they were doing before, the audience is also bored of it. But while Jaa might be doing those 8 hours of elephant gymnastics everyday we only get to see him a few hours at a time once or twice a year. We’re not bored of it yet. In 5 years, change it up. Till then, go back to what worked before.
Secondly, Jaa needs to learn English and FAST. He needs to follow the Jet Li business model rather than the Jackie Chan one. If you can’t speak English at least learn to fake it.
Keep making films in Thai and in Thailand. Keep your crew and your people. But start making other movies in English. Starting using white action stars, start collaborating with other choreographers. Start bringing that admirable “I do my own stunts” attitude to large budget, slick movies with clean plots and no redeeming social message. Then go back to Thailand and make smaller, more traditional films in between. Don’t spend the next 15 years making nothing but movies in Thai and suddenly wind up stuck on the screen with Owen Wilson and Chris Tucker as a figure of fun.
I did enjoy The Protector but I can’t recommend it. I do recommend watching the three scenes I’ve pointed out, if only to sit there contemplating what might have been. For me, I’m just trying to forget the finale and hoping against hope that someone gets Tony Jaa a translator and a manager before he turns himself into just another failed Bruce Lee rip off.
P.S. Jackie Chan has a cameo in this movie that is one of the best moments. As Jaa arrives in the Sydney airport, he bumps into an Asian man who squares off at him. Jaa responds and they stare at each other for a second … and then mutually apologize separate. It was very cute. But then Jackie is well known for his humor and generosity to other action stars. Kudos to him.
JKDCHICK NOTES: It comes to my attention that it's probably not Jackie Chan actually in the movie. I probably should have checked ... and yet i didn't. Mea Culpa, sorry and all that jazz. It's still a nice moment.