Thai Shtick

The Protector

Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, and Bongkoj Khongmalai star in a film written by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee and directed by Prachya Pinkaew.

Reviewed by D.J. Palladino

First, let’s clear up the question burning in your mind: Has success spoiled Prachya Pinkaew? Relax, my fellow Muay Thai martial arts cinephiles. Fans of Ong-bak, the first Pinkaew-directed masterpiece starring Tony Jaa and filmed on a low budget with the splendor only a beggar could imagine, will be pleased with The Protector. (This film was titled Ong Bak II in some markets.) Here find all the action, loads of the same endearing omissions of big studio fascinations like plot and love interests, plus the decorations only money spent crazily can buy. A longboat chase scene that rivals anything in any Bond film, cute elephants, exploding helicopters, and an extended fire and water battle in a Buddhist temple are just a few of the embellishments that viewers can expect. It’s not for nothing that this film features a scene where Tony Jaa (he too does all his stunts without computers or wires) encounters Jackie Chan in a Sydney airport and gets the gestural equivalent of a torch passed.

The first time I saw Jaa (who was born Panom Yeerum), I literally stayed on the edge of my seat, clapping in my own living room and recalling the first time I marveled at the quick fists of Bruce Lee himself. Picky critics might knowingly assert that Lee was nonpareil playing the enraged revenger. But Jaa smolders, too, and much better when angry than the jovial Chan or the suavely focused Jet Li. In fact, there is an astonishing scene toward the middle of the often grainy-textured film where Jaa blasts through the doors of a straight restaurant into a multi-storied palace of iniquity featuring a spiral balustrade ascending to depraved heights. Cinematically brilliant, with gleefully creative fight choreography, it ends feeling like an homage to Bruce Lee’s posthumously released Game of Death.

There are nods to Quentin Tarentino — executive producer — and music by RZA, a longtime connoisseur of lo-fi martial arts films. But, if anything, The Protector reinforces the message of Ong-bak. There’s a new fighter in the neighborhood for us unashamed lovers of outré action films. Let’s pray Hollywood never helps this promising career.

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