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Broken Sword Hero
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by Jay Seaver

"Lots of fights, few great reasons."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: What makes a great martial arts action movie? The obvious first part of the answer - "great martial arts action" - is right there in the question, but while fans will often accept other deficiencies if a film delivers that, they often want a little more than just the promise of another fight in between action scenes. "Broken Sword Hero" takes a stab at delivering that, but unless one is particularly invested in Thai fighting techniques and history, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

The film introduces the viewer to Thongdee (Buakaw Banchamek) as an adult running from a horde of pursuers, but quickly flashes back to him similarly on the run as a kid, when he's called "Joi" and bullied by the governor's sun Cherd. They're still enemies as adults, when Cherd (Nantawut Boonrubsub) and his uncle Panritdeja pursue Thongdee to a boxing camp. The pair's pursuit spurs Thongdee to move on, studying various martial arts at other camps, with young Boonkerd (Vannapoom Songsuparp) tagging along. They make a number of friends both in training and on the road, with Thongdee particularly taken by Ramyong (Sornsin Maneewan), who leaped from a caravan to defend her sisters from apparent Burmese invaders, and as a result attracting the attention of her uncle Rueang (Phutharit Prombandal), who has an important position in a different governor's staff.

The festival program hints that the star of this movie, Bukaw Banchamek, could be the next Tony Jaa, and he certainly seems to have the muay thai bona fides to pull that off; a four-time champion and solidly built dude (who also played professional soccer), there's little surprise when he jumps into a fray and starts trading effective-looking blows or just lays someone out quickly. He can certainly move and perform the athletic feats necessary. Charisma-wise, it's kind of hard to tell how he'll shape up given more acting roles, but he looks like he might make for a good "inexperienced guy befuddled by weird situation" sort of hero.

Unfortunately, he doesn't get a whole lot of chance to really play a character in this picture, because despite the plots that sort of develop around the edges, there is really nothing to this movie but boxing. Thongdee goes to one boxing camp, spars with the master's best student as an audition, trains, gets into a bigger fight, and then moves on to the next one. It's not even really a case that he seems obsessed with becoming known as the country's best fighter or the like, or that he's always in immediate danger of discovery; there's just no drive to get from one situation to another (Cherd sort of disappears as a factor at one point, and it's not like he's missed, but it's an example of how what's important aside from Thongdee learning to fight fluctuates semi-randomly in this movie). He accumulates a few sidekicks almost randomly, and though they're often pretty good ones - there's even a nice moment when a fighter kicked to the side for losing one fight joins the group and Thongdee recalls that happening to him without it having to make it into the dialog - the star isn't quite actor enough to make it feel like a makeshift family rather than other guys hanging around.

The fighting itself? Okay, but there seems to be a massive Panna Rittikrai-shaped void in Thai action cinema today, with this film's crew not able to find the thrilling athleticism next to the brutality of this fighting style. Fights are often over almost before they start or staged as simple bouts in an empty circle, with occasional moments where the audience can't quite see how physically astonishing some bit of movement or reaction is. Some less-than-great CGI when stabbing is involved doesn't help, and I can't help but feel sad that this is the first Thai film I've seen with such competent but bland cinematography; even low-budget horror movies used to look better than this.

Will I see the next thing from the star should it play Fantasia? Sure; I'm a sucker for elbows smashing down on a villain's head in slow motion. But if he's going to be the next Tony Jaa, he's going to need a team as good as the one Jaa worked with in his prime years.

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originally posted: 07/25/17 00:57:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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