After the success of Ong Bak, the world waited eagerly for a new Tony Jaa movie. The year 2005 brought us Tom Yum Goong, or The Protector for us Americans. And The Warrior King, Thai Dragon, Revenge of the Warrior, and Honor of the Beast for people in other parts of the world. Confusing, huh? In addition to the wide assortment of titles, there are just as many different edits. I’m reviewing the US release, so all references will be to The Protector.
In a nutshell, replace the statue’s head from Ong Bak with a pair of elephants, and you’ve got The Protector. Oh… and his name is not Ting, it’s Kham. And he goes to Australia instead of Bangkok. Get the picture? Sadly, The Protector is a case of “one step forward, two steps back”. Sure, we get crazy stunts and ass-kickings galore, but what should be a simple story is muddled and cluttered. I realize that part of it might be due to distributors chopping out scenes from the movie, but come on; in addition to Tony Jaa trying to get his elephants back, there’s a transgendered restaurant owner cozying up with a corrupt police inspector, and who knows what else going on in the plot. I’m not some neo-conservative backwater religious nut who freaks out over a female character who wasn’t actually born with a vagina, but it really didn’t serve much of a point.
Okay, so we’ve got Tony Jaa playing a country bumpkin who’s gone to the big city to retrieve
a statue’s head his elephants. We’ve also got the dude who played George/Humlae in Ong Bak, this time playing a cop. He speaks English throughout much of the film, but the subtitles only show up when people are speaking Thai, which sucks, because his accent is so thick he might as well be speaking Thai. Even the people who released The Harder They Come on DVD had the sense to add a subtitle option even though the movie is entirely in English.
I’ve already mentioned that the chief bad guy is a shemale restaurateur who is getting it on with a corrupt cop. She also has a henchman named Johnny who sells drugs on the side. Johnny seems like a badass at first, but he’s dispensed of rather unceremoniously. Plus, his drug trade is guarded by BMXers and rollerbladers from The X Games.
And finally, there’s a whole parade of people who line up to get their domes smashed by Tony Jaa (notable among them is former WWE wrestler Nathan Jones). When I say “parade”, I’m not fucking around; I’m pretty sure he beats up a couple of giant balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
At a little past nineteen minutes in, Tony Jaa is flying through a door and putting the hurt on some people at a karaoke party. Then it’s off to Australia for more beatdowns, so no complaints here.
If it sounds like I’m down on The Protector, it’s because I am. I just don’t think it’s a worthy follow-up to Ong Bak. What was bad about Ong Bak is worse in The Protector, and what was good about Ong Bak wasn’t really improved upon in this movie.
What should really be a simple, straightforward story about a guy trying to get his stolen elephants back is kind of all over the place. Here’s the deal: in my humble opinion, a competent martial arts movie should be like a porn movie. In a porn movie, when the cable guy shows up to fix the cable, he doesn’t really fix the cable, he fucks the girl who answers the door. And so it should be in a martial arts movie. When the protaganist arrives at a location, it should be for the sole purpose of chewing bubblegum and kicking ass but being all out of bubblegum. There’s a scene in The Protector where Tony Jaa and the cop go to a Buddhist temple… then leave. Then out of nowhere, they decide — for no real reason — to go back to the temple, where all manner of hell breaks loose. If you’re going to make a basic, by the numbers action flick, the non-action sequences should at least be serviceable. That’s just not the case in The Protector.
How do the fight scenes in The Protector hold up? Funny you should ask… that’s the only thing that keeps me from giving this a 5 out of 10 and relegating it to the “merely average” dustbin. One of the early fight scenes features Jaa going up against a gang of thugs on skateboards, BMX bikes and an ATV or two. The stunts are cool and all, but it just doesn’t seem… natural. Tony Jaa is billed as a human being who can do superhuman shit without the aid of wires, so putting his fights in a realistic context helps to highlight his abilities. This extreme sports scenario smacks of some focus group head saying, “I hear the kids are into extreme sports these days. Let’s put Tony Jaa up against some kids on motocross bikes! That will be ‘super groovy’ as you young people like to say.”
On the plus side, here is where they got things right: there is one fight scene that is over four minutes long, and it’s done in a single take. Even better, it’s done quite well in a single take. That’s the kind of innovation I was hoping for in The Protector, so props to them for doing it right.
There’s also a scene that I interpreted as Tony Jaa saying “Fuck you!” to Steven Seagal. I’m probably reaching, I know, but when Tony Jaa broke the limbs of about 50 anonymous bad guys (if this had been a Star Trek episode, these dudes would have been all wearing red shirts), it basically summed up Steven Seagal’s entire filmography in a few short minutes. Again, I know I’m reaching, but I really want to live in a world where martial arts movies offer symbolic middle fingers to Steven Seagal. Chuck Norris, too. Fuck that dude.
In closing, Tony Jaa fans will enjoy The Protector, if only because Tony Jaa does what he’s expected to do. Fans of martial arts films in general will — for the most part — like the fight scenes, but squirm through all the other crap. If you don’t fall into either of those categories, you probably won’t enjoy this one. I liked it, but just barely.