(Don't Fuck With) a Boy and His Elephant

“You killed my father,” seethes subtitled protagonist Kham (Tony Jaa), confronting an enemy during the late goings of screamingly kinetic Thai import The Protector. Then, after a breath (and he seems equally peeved, if not moreso, about this): “And you stole my elephant.”

(File under: Compelling Dramatic Motivations to Acrobatically Ass-Kick One’s Way Through the Ranks

Tom Yum Goong
(The Protector)

Dir. Prachya Pinkaew; writ. Prachya Pinkaew (story), Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, Napalee, Piyaros Thongdee, Joe Wannapin; feat. Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Jin Xing, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Nathan Jones (R)

of a Drug-Traffick-ing, Endangered-Species-Smuggling, ’Ho-Running, Asian-Australian Crime Syndicate.)

Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector opens with a bit of helpful explanation: Kham and his father are the last (naturally) of a long line of Jaturungkabart — elite soldiers entrusted with protecting the king’s elephants. Young Kham grows up caring for and bonding with the revered, lumbering creatures (not much of a dramatic stretch, as Jaa raised them as a boy, and does still), and develops a particular fondness for a particular baby heffalump, name of Kohrn. (“Fondness,” that is, in an endearing, Jungle Book sort of way, not in an unsettling, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Matt-Damon-as-a-gay-male-horse sort of way.) When members of the Thai-Vietnamese-Chinese-Australian mafia — ’cause that exists, apparently, and is led by an unnervingly attractive Chinese woman (played by Jin Xing, China’s most famous transsexual) — kidnap Kohrn and its mother, and hightail it to Sydney (and kill Kham’s dad, incidentally) the last remaining Jaturungkabartulokgetalong-gangtangbot (that’s Kham, if you’re lost) must leave his village to rescue them. (And also cope with losing his father. Jump-kicking nameless goons through panes of glass, apparently, is something of an effective salve.)

The sooner you get it out of your head that Jaa’s latest outing isn’t just a(n awkwardly) gussied-up athletic showcase, the better off you both will be. The reality is that the film is awash in flaws — but for nearly every fast-forward moment (hopelessly obfuscated plot, boring-to-notably-bad acting, distractingly odd editing) there seems to be at least one rewind-and-see-it-again sequence (Jaa flip-kicks a guy out of an airborne helicopter, walks up a dude’s chest and kicks him in the face, breaks numerous fellas’ hands with his nuts … ). And, predictably, some of the most ridiculous, potentially terrible bits are some of the most entertaining (the film alternates erratically between subtitles and bad dubbing; a large bad guy somehow manages to throw a baby elephant; a villain pulls an alarm in a warehouse, summoning a slew of extreme-sports henchmen — roller-blades, BMX bikes, etc. — from all corners of the city).

Additionally, our hero fights such a lively variety of enemies — a sword-wielding quick-dude, a dreadlocked capoeira master, several impossibly large men — that (1) it’s almost like watching a video game (in a good way), and (2) you find yourself waiting, breath ever-so-bated, for Kareem and Chuck Norris to show up (they don’t). All else aside, however, the film is worth watching for a scene that will likely be its legacy: a five-or-so-minute-long sequence — and feat of virtuosity both cinematic and athletic — wherein Jaa climbs four stories of a building, pitching extras here and there, going through legions of guys like a bran muffin through a particularly healthy colon … all done with no cuts, in one single, glorious shot.

With both The Protector and predecessor Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Pinkaew and Jaa’s first collaboration), the most absorbing bits of filmmaking, narratively speaking, are the glimpses of Thai culture used to set the scene during the first few minutes of each. After that, everything sorta sucks, except the gratuitous slo-mo shots (or the furiously energetic ones) of Jaa doing something that should be impossible in our planet’s atmosphere. Thing is, that’s OK — because as fight-stunt porno goes, The Protector is a flat-out killer.
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