by Mel Valentin
If someone said you’d be watching a film centered on a man and his elephant, chances are, you’d expect an eco-friendly paean to nature and our appropriate relationship to the natural world. You’d only be partly right, since the film under review is Tony Jaa’s ("Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior’s") second martial arts/action film, "The Protector" ("Tom yum goong"). Anyone who’s seen "Ong Bak" know exactly what to expect: a particularly brutal kind of martial arts action plus Tony Jaa doing what Jackie Chan has done best for going on twenty five years, putting himself in harm’s way, all for the coolest of cool action scenes. Jaa leaps, he back flips, and somersaults over any and all obstacles all in pursuit of his childhood best friend, Khon, an elephant kidnapped from his native Thailand to Sydney, Australia. Sounds slightly ridiculous? Indeed, it is, but the simple, simplistic, sentimental storyline, aren't enough to dampen the sheer pleasure of seeing Tony Jaa in action.Born into a family of warriors, Kham (Tony Jaa) has grown up alongside elephants. Trained by his father (Sotorn Rungruaeng) in a specific subset of martial arts used to defend the elephants in battle, Kham is unprepared for the arrival of poachers. One elephant goes down, but an elder elephant, Por Yai, and his son, Khon, manage to survive. Kham, his father, and the elephants venture into town, ostensibly to present Por Yai for inspection. If accepted, Por Yai will leave Kham and his father and become part of the king’s retinue. Things don’t go according to plan, though, as Kham and his father re-encounter the poachers. This time the poachers succeed, kidnapping the two elephants and taking them to Australia.
"A platonic love story...between a man and an elephant."
With no other option and just one clue (the name of a gang member), Kham flies to Australia. In short order, a Thai-Australian policeman, Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao), and his partner, Officer Rick (David Chatchavan Asavanod), take Kham into custody. Another detective, Vincent (Damian De Montemas), has more than a passing interest in Kham and Kham’s search for the elephants. Kham finds and fights Johnny (Johnny Tri Nguyen), the leader of a gang involved in the kidnapping. Johnny, though, is basically a mid-level manager. Madame Rose (Xing Jing), a transvestite with an appetite for leather and whips, is second-in-command of the gang and its legitimate business interests, but hopes to become the CEO/gang boss, with the help of her henchmen, a special soup she’s concocted her loyal henchman. Kham, of course, has other plans, hoping to get Mark and Pla (Bongkoj Khongmalai), one of Johnny’s girls, to help him out. Nothing, absolutely nothing will (or can) stand between Kham and his beloved elephants.
While The Protector starts out slow, taking a full twenty minutes before Kham springs into action, then segueing into introducing secondary characters in Australia, once the action re-starts, at roughly the forty minute mark, it doesn't let up (well mostly, with one or two minor respites). One set piece, a boat chase through a heavily populated river looks and feels like it could be inserted in a James Bond flick, circa 1973. More likely, the director, Prachya Pinkaew (Ong Bak), and his collaborators found their inspiration for that scene from a similar, if larger scaled scene, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But moviegoers didn't come to a movie theater to watch boat or car chases (indeed, there is one, a car chase that is), but instead to see Tony Jaa do what he does best, a particularly unsubtle style of martial arts, Muay Thai, specific to Thailand, that involves heavy use of knees and elbows, often to the face or head.
As The Protector moves from one fight scene to another, arms get twisted, legs get bent out of shape, fingers get broken, and bones are snapped in two or three (or four) as Jaa takes on an almost infinite supply of henchmen. First up, a battle royale pitting Kham against inline-skaters, bikers, dirt bikers, and an ATV, all inside a warehouse. At the midpoint, Jaa enters a restaurant, the Tom yum goong, finds his way to a secret building, part restaurant, part whorehouse, and begins to wreck havoc, one floor at a time, video game style. The camera follows him up, usually at close quarters, but occasionally holding back, probably for the safety of the camera crew. Pinkaew (Ong Bak) uses one camera and a single, continuous take to follow the bone-crunching action, until Jaa makes his way to the top floor, where Johnny and several more disposable henchman await. It doesn't quite have the coolness factor of a similar scene from last year's Oldboy but it comes close.
But wait, there's more. As mentioned, the restaurant fight occurs at roughly the midpoint, meaning Jaa is only getting warmed up for bigger and badder battles, beginning with an extended sequence inside a waterlogged temple, where Kham takes on a Capoeira fighter (Lateef Crowder), a Wushu fighter (Jonathan Patrick Foo), and finally, a raging, steroid-fueled giant, T.K. (Nathan B. Jones). If this is starting to sound familiar (especially if you're a martial arts fan), it should. Jaa and Pinkaew have obviously taken their inspiration and pay due homage to the late, great Bruce Lee and his last, uncompleted film, Game of Death, wherein Lee takes on a series of fighters, each specialists in different fighting styles, as he ascends a warehouse. Kham's fight ends inconclusively, with the police arriving to stop the fight. Later, of course, Kham will get another chance to take on and take out T.K., but he also has to contend with a building lined from top to bottom with black-suited fighters, more muscle freaks, T.K., and Madame Rose.As for the romantic subplot, there's a hint of one between Kham and Pla, but that goes nowhere. Contrary to expectations, Pla's barely an observer. The final scene tells all: Kham reunited with Khon, his best friend. It's innocent, pure, unconditional love. Apparently, the complexities of romantic love have no place "The Protector." Fight scenes aside (and really, that's why moviegoers will venture out to movie theaters), "The Protector" is all about a man and his elephant. It may sound ridiculous, and for Western audiences, it's hard to see how it wouldn't, but it's oddly affecting, especially after all the broken limbs and bodies Kham has piled up to ensure his reunion with Khon.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14709&reviewer=402
originally posted: 09/11/06 06:41:56