In 1985, Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan starred in The Protector, his second attempt at cashing in on the American film market. It didn't work--partially because the film sucked and partially because Chan found himself teamed up with Danny Aiello. (Not to worry. Chan's next American outing, pairing with Chris Tucker in 1998's Rush Hour, proved a bit more profitable.) Now comes another martial arts action film titled The Protector. This one stars Thai jaw-dropper Tony Jaa (Ong-bak). It has nothing to do with Chan’s 1985 film. (Although, alert viewers will spot a historic passing-of-the-torch moment involving Jaa and what looks like a certain big-nosed kung fu fighter.)
The Protector is actually a retitle of Jaa’s 2005 hit Tom Yum Goong (which, rather uninterestingly, refers to a popular kind of Thai soup that’s never actually featured in the film). The new appellation, bestowed by its American releasing company, is a none-too-subtle hint that Jaa is the martial arts world’s most promising up-and-comer. Ong-bak established Jaa and his stunning Muay Thai skills as the newest link in the Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan/Jet Li chain of succession. Many have tried to join that exalted line. Throughout the years, we’ve had British kickboxer Gary Daniels, Belgian kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme, American aikido master Steven Seagal and countless Hollywood actors with well-paid trainers. (Wesley Snipes, I'm looking at you!) But few of those would-be martial arts stars have had the skills, the charisma and the ability to not become fat and Buddhist. If Ong-bak cemented Tony Jaa’s reputation, then The Protector plates it in gold.
Storywise, the film doesn’t stray very far from the one laid out in Ong-bak. Instead of playing a humble country boy from Thailand hunting down evil foreigners who have stolen his village’s sacred statue, Jaa plays a humble country boy from Thailand hunting down evil foreigners who have stolen his village’s sacred elephant. Jaa’s character, Kham, has spent his entire life growing up around elephants. For centuries, his family has served as bodyguards to the king of Thailand’s personal elephants. (Trust me, in Thailand, that’s a very big deal.) One day, however, some evil poachers show up and steal Kham’s lifelong pachyderm companion, BoBo.
Admittedly, on the list of marital arts film motivations, “You stole my elephant!” ranks somewhere below “You killed my sister!” and “You insulted my school!” Still, after our hero touches down in Australia in pursuit of the elephant-nappers, the villainous scheme grows proportionally larger, involving corrupt cops, evil businesswomen, white slavery and other unspeakable acts. Believe me, by the end, you'll want to see their evil asses thoroughly kicked.
It takes a little while for Jaa to unleash his punishing brand of Muay Thai martial arts. Obviously proud of their country’s culture and heritage, Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew spend a decent amount of time setting up the film’s backstory. Beautiful imagery of rural Thailand and well-shot nature footage of the Thai people’s close connection with elephants make for a lovely opening travelogue. Of course, when the fisticuffs finally do arrive, they’re well worth the wait. If you’ve never witnessed Muay Thai, it’s pretty stunning stuff, designed to snap limbs, bust heads and otherwise completely incapacitate opponents. Jaa is an incredible athlete, and his on-screen bouts look amazingly brutal. It’s hard to watch this film without screaming “ouch!” every few minutes.
Logically speaking, the story doesn’t always jell. Bad guys sprout from the woodwork with all the clockwork regularity of videogame characters, and the villains' main scheme is a bit hard to follow. Nonetheless, I guarantee it’s something you’ve never seen before. The film’s originality extends into the fight sequences which are cleverly choreographed and don’t simply crib from old Jackie Chan films. One bravura sequence--a nonstop, single-camera, no-cut, five-minute bruise-a-thon through a five-story building--deserves to go down in martial arts history. Besides, if you’re overly concerned with plot intricacies, you’re in the wrong movie theater. People who bitch about the plot in marital arts movies are like the people who complain about the character motivation in porno films--if it’s intelligent, great; but it’s not the reason most of us bought tickets.
Only time will tell if Tony Jaa truly assumes the crown left behind by aging asskicker Jackie Chan. In 10 years’ time, Jaa could very well be in Hollywood making wacky action comedies with David Spade. Personally, I hope he stays in Thailand and gives us more marital arts badness like The Protector.