BKO: Bangkok KnockoutReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/19/11 12:45:36
SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In many ways, the relative merits of "Bangkok Knockout" can be summed up by how its cast credits are presented, both in the film and online: In the closing scroll, the first thing presented after a character's name was not the actor who played the role, but what style of martial arts he or she used. If I'd had some foresight, I would have used my phone to snap some pictures of that scroll, not for that curiosity, but because I've yet to find a site which matches character names with actors to use as reference while writing this review. The thing is, it's almost not a big deal; it's not like anybody is going to spend time critiquing individual performances for this one.The bulk of the characters are students of the late Master Udon, competing in a contest to find Thailand's best stunt team with the winner getting a chance to work for Hollywood producer Mr. Snead. The surprise comes after their victory dinner - Udon's son Pod, niece Fern, and students Lerm, Ed, Ko, James, and Pom, along with their teacher Rom, wake up from a drugged stupor to find that their friend Joy has been kidnapped and they've got to fight their way past a group of professional killers in an unfinished housing development to rescue her, while Snead takes bets from rich foreigners on who will survive each encounter.
Director Panna Rittikrai and producer Pracha Pinkaew know this game pretty well; though their names may not be immediately recognizable, they are the ones who discovered and developed the careers of Tony Jaa, Jija Yanin, and other Thai action stars. There may be a Jaa or Yanin in this cast, but this likely won't be the movie that catapults them to stardom. Some other movie might; it's just that here, they are part of a large ensemble that is fairly homogenous. They're all capable enough, called on to do more or less the same thing between fights, with only a couple of the fighters called upon to establish much of an individual personality. Still, while none of the main cast display the charisma required to steal the picture, none of the fighters embarrass themselves. This, sadly, cannot be said for the supporting cast, who are almost all terrible, which is kind of annoying - since they're not fighting, they're just there to act, and one would hope they could do that at least a little.
They can't, though, and some of their scenes are really torture. There's a comic relief character who is just not funny at all, but that's not really a big deal. What's worse are the cut-aways to Snead and his four customers, which are poorly-acted, cheap-looking, and just leaden, spelling out exactly what odds Snead is giving and acting like the audience cares about which gambler is up or down in the slightest. A couple of things which look like subplots but actually go nowhere show up here, and a few more back in the site, giving the feeling that Rittikrai and his co-writers had vague ideas about the story but never fleshed them out. Everything that is not an action scene feels sloppy; even those who generally don't notice such things will probably wonder how the place can appear remote and isolated in one shot but near a major highway in the next.
So, everything but the fighting is pretty bad. But, well, that's a pretty huge exception; once the plot is set up, any time not spent with Snead & company is spent fighting, and this is a thing Rittikrai does well. Though the story has everybody studying under the same master, every protagonist has different styles, so we see a bit of everything from muay thai to kung fu to silat. It's well-choreographed and shot, and there are plenty of the sort of falls and hits that assure the audience that stunt performers in Thailand have just a terrible union, because that has got to hurt. And while one might think that an unfinished housing development doesn't offer that much variety in action scenes, that fails to take into account just how bonkers Rittikrai's and Pinkaew's movies can be; this one involves axes, crossdressing, and the basement being rigged for a cage match. And then, for the finale... People fight on top of moving trucks all the time (though seldom looking as dangerously real as it does here), but how about underneath it?As much as the martial-arts movie that can't do anything but fights right is a cliché, one seldom sees the difference as starkly displayed as it is with "Bangkok Knockout". As inept as the rest of the movie is, the action is good (and occasionally great) enough to make up for it. It's certainly not a complete movie, but it gets the important stuff right.
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