I witnessed the ninja fad permeate pop culture, watched Chuck Norris on Walker, Texas Ranger, and paid to see Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme kick butt in theaters. But since the turn of the millennium, things have changed. Jet Li has reportedly retired from wushu movies, and Jackie Chan has returned to Hong Kong and now rarely makes Hollywood flicks.
Fortunately, a relatively unknown actor—at least unknown in Western households—is generating some genuine buzz for martial arts movies. His name is Tony Jaa, and he stars in The Protector (called Tom Yum Goong in Thailand and the rest of the world). Tony Jaa is basically a walking stunt reel the likes of which we haven’t seen since Jackie Chan in the 1980s. His mix of flashy muay Thai, aerial taekwondo, bone-busting grappling and high-flying gymnastics is revolutionizing the genre.
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Tony Jaa plays Kham, a young elephant herder who tracks a Vietnamese gangster to Australia after Kham’s father is killed and his elephants stolen. In Australia, Kham has to take down dirty cops, the thug’s henchmen and a Chinese syndicate before he can rescue his pets.
Like most films of its ilk, The Protector is predictable, with a cliché-riddled script. The characters are cardboard cutouts with nary a motivation. Thankfully, Tony Jaa’s on-screen fights more than make up for the flaws.
In the first big set piece, Kham knees one opponent’s roundhouse kick, sending him flying, then delivers his own elbows, knees and kicks that propel more thugs through the air. Later, he brawls with a capoeira expert, a wushu stylist and a hulking wrestler. It’s devastating choreography that uses familiar muay Thai moves in innovative ways.
Not all the fight staging by Tony Jaa and stunt mentor Panna Rittikrai is flawless. At the climax, Kham battles dozens of bad guys, taking them out of commission with awesome aerial kicks and brutal joint breaks. The scene is breathtaking the first time, but after he snaps an ankle, elbow and wrist for the 10th time, it gets tedious. Later, when Kham straps elephant bones to his forearms to defeat four hulking strongmen, the movie plummets into an illogical cheese fest.
Prachya Pinkaew’s direction has vastly improved from when he filmed 2003’s Ong-Bak (which also starred Tony Jaa), partly because of his growing knowledge of Hollywood and Hong Kong aesthetics. In one Brian De Palma-inspired scene, Prachya Pinkaew has Kham busting into the thug’s hangout, climbing up a huge spiraling staircase, destroying furniture and throwing guys over banisters—all in a single, apparently unedited four-minute Steadicam take.
It’s a shame, though, that the fight between Kham and the villain is so short. The main heavy is played by Johnny Tri Nguyen, a former U.S. Wushu Team member and a Spider-Man stunt double. With stunning spin kicks and growing acting talents, he should have more screen time and a more developed character. Still, he and Tony aa do the best they can with the script they were given.
Overall, The Protector’s illogical moments shrink in comparison to Tony Jaa’s amazing stunts and killer choreography. This is definitely a film worth watching, and hopefully it’ll revive an age of action cinema that hasn’t been seen in years.