Review: The Protector

They don’t make movies like The Protector anymore. In fact, they stopped about fifteen years ago, when martial arts stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li turned their attention from local to international markets. A throwback in more ways than one, this Tony Jaa vehicle resurrects the bad acting and absurd plotting of old-fashioned kung fu movies, as well as their exhilarating stunts and action choreography. Genre fans will lap it up, and the generally non-threatening material could bring in a broader audience as well.

Like Jaa’s Ong-Bak, The Protector is a proudly Thai film that makes the country’s customs and traditions an integral part of the story. A long prologue details the veneration many feel for elephants, and introduces a family whose job it is to protect the animals from poachers. When two of his elephants are abducted during a festival, Kham (Tony Jaa) goes to Sydney, Australia, to rescue them.

Helped by Mark (Phettkai Wongkhamlao), a Thai working on the Sydney police force, Kham zeroes in on Johnny (Johnny Tri Nguyen), whose restaurant serves as a cover for a multi-level casino and bordello. Johnny is also involved with a Chinese gang that’s being taken over by Madame Rose (Jin Xing), a beautiful but ruthless transsexual. Kham will fight them all to save his elephants.

Most of the creative team behind Ong-Bak is back for The Protector, including director Prachya Pinkaew and stunt coordinator Panna Rittikrai. The amusingly irascible Phettkai Wongkhamlao also returns to help with the acting. Like Jackie Chan (who gives the film his imprimatur in an unbilled cameo), Jaa prides himself on performing his own stunts. He does them brilliantly, but he is less successful at portraying any personality. Compared to Wongkhamlao or the magnetic Jin Xing, Jaa has so little screen presence that he often seems to fade away from his own film.

But Jaa shines in the fight scenes, among the most intricate and intense of the year. Many will be impressed by a four-minute take in which Jaa demolishes dozens of bad guys in Johnny’s four-story den of iniquity, but the choreography for an extended fight in an abandoned garage is actually far more complicated. There Jaa maneuvers his way in, over, and around vehicles, fences, walls, stairways, and ramps while fighting off skateboarders, motorcyclists, ATVs, and chain-wielding goons. Add in a trio of man-to-man encounters with fighters from different martial arts schools, followed by an extended battle with assorted musclemen, and The Protector could try the patience of non-action fans.

The film was a solid hit in Asia last year under the title Tom-Yum-Goong (the name of a spicy Thai soup as well as the restaurant where Kham gets his leads). New music has been added for the American release, which has also been tightened by some twenty minutes.

Credits

Cast: Tony Jaa, Phettkai Wongkhamlao, Bongkod Kongmalai, Jin Xing, Nathan B. Jones, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Lateef Crowder, Jonathan Patrick Foo, Damain de Montemas, Winai Poonpermponsiri, David Chatchavan Asavanod, Sotorn Rungruaeng, Amonphan Gongtragan, Nutdanai Kong, Lateef Crowder.

Credits: Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Screenplay by Napalee, Piyaros Thongdee, Joe Wannapin, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. Story by Prachya Pinkaew. Produced by Prachya Pinkaew, Sukanya Vongsthapat. Executive producer: Somsak Techaratanaprasert. Director of photography: Nuttawut Kittikun. Edited by Marut Seelacharoen. Production designer: Akadech Kaewkot. Costume designer: Ekabhume Nganchamang. Original music by The RZA. Additional music: Howard Drossin. Martial arts choreography: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai. Stunt coordinator: Panna Rittikrai. Associate producer: Sita Vosbien. Assistant producer: Piyaluck Mahatanasap. A Sahamongkol presentation of a Baa-Ram-Ewe production. In Thai, English, and Mandarin with English subtitles.

The Weinstein Co./Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/90 Mins./Rated R

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