Thursday, July 31, 2014

Kung Fu Treachery: THE PROTECTOR 2 aka TOM YUM GOONG 2 (2013)

Wow, what a difference a decade makes.  It doesn’t seem that long ago, but eleven years back a complete unknown from Thailand named Tony Jaa burst onto the martial arts movie scene with the action flick ONG BAK (2003).  I can still remember the rumblings I heard on martial arts movie forums and waiting for a Quicktime trailer to finish loading on the official movie site.  The hype behind Jaa and his amazing prowess promised “no stunt doubles, no special effects, no computer, no strings!” It was hardly anything original (Jackie Chan was taking kicks to the head since Bruce Lee’s era), but a welcome reprieve to the wire fu era that was becoming so ridiculous that folks seemed to be floating rather than fighting.

ONG BAK lived up to the hype and delivered some hard hitting (literally) action scenes.  Jaa’s skill level was off the charts and his mentor/stunt coordinator Panna Rittikrai made the most of his protégé’s talents as the guy flipped over and skidded under anything and everything.  The film proved to have so much buzz that it got a US theatrical release. Jaa quickly reteamed with Rittikrai and ONG BAK’s director Prachya Pinkaew for TOM YUM GOONG (2005). Again telling a simple story of a guy looking for revenge, this second collaboration – with 5 times the budget – topped the earlier film in nearly every way.  The fight scenes were jaw dropping, including a one-take fight scene that vaulted up into the top 5 greatest action scenes ever put on film.  The film was a smashing success in Thailand (second only to a Harry Potter film as the top box office draw that year) and got a US release in 2006 by the Weinsteins, who, naturally, cut the film and gave it the generic title THE PROTECTOR. The future looked bright for Jaa and then the chaos came.

Jaa felt strangled by his film company, Sahamongkol Film, when they wanted more ONG BAK films.  He agreed, but only if he could do it his way.  He left Pinkaew behind and opted to do ONG BAK 2 on his own.  Tales of this chaos for the neophyte director during this production are legendary and, when the film ran way over schedule and budget, Rittikrai was brought in to help fix things. This resulted in not one, but two prequels that had literally nothing to do with ONG BAK, unless you count the martial arts.  I still contended that there is a good film buried in ONG BAK 2 (2008) – which features one hell of a finale – and ONG BAK 3 (2010) if someone were to edit out all the filler. Sadly, this period represented a waste of some of Jaa’s prime years and Sahamongkol still had him under contract.  With the ONG BAK prequels performing so-so at the box office, it came as no surprise when they announced a reunion with Pinkaew for TOM YUM GOONG 2. Unfortunately, trying to catch lightning in a bottle is about as easy as taking one of Jaa’s knees to the face and acting like it didn’t hurt.  Oh, it hurts alright…just like this film.

Seven years after the events of the first film, we find Kham (Jaa) living back in his village with his now-grown elephant, Kohrn. Oddly, the folks in the village don’t like him now, admonishing him for teaching kids martial arts and the havoc created by his elephant.  His only friend seems to be a village idiot who likes to build devices that shock people.  One day a businessman named Mr. Vilawandei (Adinan Buntanaporn) shows up and offers Kham a fortune for his elephant.  Oh jeez, didn’t he read about what happened seven years ago in the papers?  Kham politely rejects his offer and, wouldn’t you know it, soon finds his elephant kidnapped…again.  Yes, the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to come up with a new plot device to get Kham into action.  He heads to Vilawandei’s to whoop ass, but finds the businessman dead in his office. Not only that, but he has to deal with the guy’s fighting niece twins, Ping-ping (Jeeja Yanin) and Sue-sue (Theerada Kittiseriprasert), and his old pal, Sgt. Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao aka Mum Jokmok).  Wait, what is a cop from Australia doing in Thailand?  Ah, forget it.

Turns out the real killer – who uses a deadly triple punch death combo – works for another deadly businessman named LC (Wu Tang Clan rapper RZA). You know he is bad news because he has fighters, who he has tattooed in a ranking system, beat each other up for his enjoyment. Kham will soon meet him, but not before the film’s first big action scene as he takes on a group of bikers on the rooftop of an apartment building. Right off the bat you know Pinkaew has jumped the shark as this scene is filled with some really bad CGI (look at the fake looking motorcycles that fly toward Jaa) and he enhances Jaa’s stunt work with computer effects.  No, goddamn it, just no.  This scene is antithesis of everything Jaa stood for when he made his big splash and is easily one of the worst action scenes he’s been involved with.  The true irony here is that Pinkaew also includes an amazing bit in here where the camera is strapped to Jaa as he leaps from one building to another, giving the audience a great POV experience.  Sadly, this is a tiny silver lining in a scene that relies on bad green screen work and tons of wire work.

Anyway, Kham continues looking for his elephant and the now kidnapped Sgt. Mark while the martial arts twins track his every move.  He is drawn to a shipyard and soon meets the mysterious kung fu killer, No. 2 (Marrese Crump). Showing his ability, No. 2 kills off Sue-sue with his patented killer fist and gets into it with both Ping-ping and Kham. Now here is the film’s cruelest irony – the fights between No. 2 and Kham are really good. Pinkaew allows the fights to tell the story and actually breathe, meaning longer takes without too many cuts. It proves that Jaa still has it and showcases Crump’s well-honed abilities as well. Kham ends up being defeated and captured, not due to No. 2’s skills, but the fact that Ping-ping incapacitated him with an acupuncture needle.  So Kham finally gets to meet LC and you figure he has kidnapped him because he wants the best fighter in the world to entertain him.  Nope.  Seems he kidnapped Kham and his elephant so he could use him as an assassin to murder some bigwig.  To get him to comply, they have attacked a shocking device – made by the village idiot, who was a turncoat – to Kham’s back and around his elephant’s neck.  Well, I guess someone saw POLICE STORY II (1988). Kham is now running around town trying to kill someone, while Interpol searches for him.  But wait, there’s more!  The bad guys are also going to use the elephant as a bomb to assassinate a political leader coming to Thailand for peace talks. Oh, jeez, I give up…kind of just like the screenwriter did.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, THE PROTECTOR 2 is an absolute mess of a film. The screenplay makes so little sense that you have to wonder if they even filmed with a completed screenplay. Also, the acting from a majority of the cast is abysmal.  Now I know RZA is known for having a great respect for the old school kung fu flicks from the 1970s, but he is a horrible actor.  Remember how your jaw dropped when you first saw Jaa kick a guy flush in the head?  That is how your jaw will drop when you see RZA’s acting skills on display. There is one bit where he has scene with a Thai female assassin who is speaking English phonetically…and she comes off looking like the better thespian!  Even worse, the finale has RZA taking on Jaa one-on-one in a fight and that is just ridiculous. The poor Thai co-stars don’t fare as well either.  The return of Petchtai Wongkamlao seems like nothing but a contractual obligation and, while I’m not the biggest fan of Thai comedy, he is given absolutely nothing funny to do.  Faring even worse is female martial artist Jeeja Yanin, who burst onto the scene in Pinkeaw’s CHOCOLATE (2008).  The idea of her teaming up with Jaa had action fans salivating, but she is also given little to do other than show up and saves Jaa’s ass now and then.  She literally has one line.  To add insult to injury, the filmmakers also gave her an unattractive bowl cut.

Now don’t get me wrong, no one is going to watch a Jaa movie for the intricate plotting or Oscar worthy acting.  We are there for amazing fights and to watch the human highlight reel wow us with some marvelous moves. And there is the film’s biggest problem.  Whereas the first film set a new standard for insane action, this one sets a new low for Jaa’s career. You might want to sit down for this one, but Pinkaew relies so heavily on computer FX in this one that it completely ruins the experience.  And I’m not just talking about during action scenes involving cars and motorcycles.  Most of Jaa’s work here is computer enhanced and that is a crushing blow.  It is like seeing Telly Savalas in a toupee or Charles Bronson in drag.  It just ain’t right. Jaa’s entire foundation was built on the Panna Rittikrai school of hard knocks.  In ONG BAK, when he kicked someone while his legs were on fire, he really kicked them while his legs are on fire. When he jumped up and went knees first into a dude, he was really doing it.  One of the great scenes in THE PROTECTOR is when Jaa fights Lateef Crowder and Nathan Jones inside a burning building.  They set that up with real flames all around them, making the danger almost leap off the screen.  So imagine my heart sinking when they do that again, but with a room covered in CGI flames. And I’m not talking good computer rendering either, I’m talking stuff that the SyFy Channel execs would look at and mock.  Even worse, they do an homage to the ONG BAK “feet on fire” stunt and, even if Jaa really had his feet on fire, you can’t tell because it is lost in a CGI fire mess.  I haven’t felt this sad since Brett Ratner bragged about how he introduced Jackie Chan to the idea of greenscreen. Pinkaew ends up making a Hollywood wannabe flick with the budget less than what Keanu Reeves gets paid and forgets his biggest asset is his star.

Thankfully, there is still hope. Jaa is now free from Sahamongkol and doing his own stuff. While he will make his Hollywood debut in a supporting role in the upcoming THE FAST AND FURIOUS 7 (2015), he has a much more interesting project in the upcoming SKIN TRADE, where he co-stars with Dolph Lundgren and Michael Jai White.  An early trailer promises some great fights and that is really all we ask. A notion completely lost on Pinkaew and company is that Jaa is the special effect that audiences want to see. Hopefully it is nothing but up from here for Mr. Jaa.  It shouldn’t be too hard as THE PROTECTOR 2 gave him a new low.

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