Even by the generous standards of the martial arts genre, the new Tony Jaa vehicle The Protector has an extremely silly plot:
Kham, as a young man, is trained in the traditional style of fighting that his villagers have used for centuries to protect their royal elephants. When his aged father attempts to meet the king of Thailand to present their finest elephant as a gift, he is killed, the elephant and its child are both stolen, and Kham must travel to Sydney, Australia, there to fight the villainous female head of the powerful Austro-Thai mafia, who has stolen the elephant in the hope of absorbing its royal spirit to safeguard her tenuous position leading the mafia.
It makes less sense as you're watching it.
I know as well as anyone that in any halfway-decent martial arts film, the story is only a pretext. If it provides plenty of great fight scenes, it is a success. And The Protector (or Tom yum goong, a title I prefer because it is the name of a particularly tasty soup that has nothing to do with the film) has plenty of fight scenes, and some of them are very good indeed.
A non-existent plot (such as in Jaa's previous teaming with director Prachya Pinkaew, Ong-bak) is fine. I have defended many plotless films on the grounds that they are merely vehicles for great whatever: acting, cinematography, musical numbers, fight scenes. Some of my all-time favorite movies have empty plots and perfunctory scripts.
Elephants are not non-existent. They are very large, and call attention to themselves, and when they are the centerpiece of a story, you cannot ignore the story. At every moment, you think to yourself, "this scene is in service of rescuing a mystical elephant."
Which is a shame, because there's a lot to love about the fight scenes, and they are clearly the raison d'être of the film. There are many small fight scenes, and three major setpieces, all of them are totally different, doubtlessly so that Jaa can show off his skills (which are prodigious: I'd wager that Jaa is the most skilled living martial artist whose cinematic work has been seen in this country). In the first, Jaa is chased through a warehouse, and is given many opportunities to interact with his surrondings, like a Thai Buster Keaton; this scene is particularly notable for some amazing camera movement (through a series of abandoned train cars!) and quick, MTV-flavored editing. It is the cinematic highlight of the film. The bravura centerpiece of the film sees Jaa fighting his way up a giant spiral staircase five flights high, in one uninterrupted five-minute take, and while it calls attention to itself, it's the sort of thing that deserves to. The third and final setpiece involves Jaa fighting three warriors in a burning temple; the fight choreography is brilliant, and the sequence is simply beautiful to look at, lit by flames reflected off the inch of water on the ground that splashes everywhere artfully.
Make no mistake, they are impeccable fight scenes. They are a marked improvement over their Ong-bak precursors, or just about any other fight scene I could name in the last ten years. But that's it. Everything else is elephants, and that which is not elephants is awful internal politicking by the corrupt Sydney police force, or the Austro-Thai mafia, or a very strange mud-bath striptease scene that makes whatever the opposite of sense is.
It is the very definition of a great rental film: for $4, you can spend a really fun forty minutes fast-forwarding through the non-Jaa scenes. But it is deadly in the theater. Elephants, man. Elephants.
A final word: the film has been cut by nearly 30 minuts thanks to the wisdom of the Brothers Weinstein. This has an obvious and drastic effect on the structure of what remains - I could probably point out every moment at which a scene was missing, and the film suffers greatly for it. Yet on some level, I can't imagine that any of the subplots would be any more endurable for being longer. The point being, it is not a complete film, and it is certainly less sensible now than it could be. Which is setting the bar rather low for the sensibility of the original cut.
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