The Protector (Tom yum goong)

Imagine the worst movie you’ve ever seen. Now mix in a greatest hits collection of Jackie Chan’s best fight choreography and you’ve got The Protector, the new film from Chan's apparent successor Tony Jaa. Chan pulls a cameo in a scene that's obviously about him passing the torch to Tony, and Jaa pulls off moves in the pic that would make him proud. The script however, is another matter. Simply put, it's a disaster, one that director Prachya Pinkaew only makes worse.

It starts promisingly enough, with the intriguing story of Kham (Tony Jaa), the descendent of an ancient Thai society dedicated to guarding and protecting the King's royal pacaderms. Now in the modern world, they've become more like farmers, raising noble elephants to serve as decoration and spirit guides in the royal court. While delivering their most beloved bull to the King's examiner, things go awry, Kham's father is killed, his elephants kidnapped, and the plot goes straight to hell.

Kham goes on a rescue/revenge mission to get back his beloved elephants and make the people who took them pay. The Protector quickly devolves into a series of disconnected nonsense. It turns into an editing nightmare, and key transitionary moments are forgotten, leaving the audience to confusion as the story turns completely bizarre in the hands of Pinkaew and his editors. Characters drift in and out of the picture without explanation, Kham leaps to the attack against forces we don't recognize or even understand.

It's a mess of a movie, rife with stupidity. A Thai man goes to Sydney where, inexplicably nearly everyone is Thai, and takes on people who never seem to think of using guns except when it's easy for Kham to avoid them. The thing careens along with almost reckless abandon, taking place in the kind of world where Australian cops tie prisoners up with ropes instead of handcuffs so it'll be more convenient for them to get free later. At some point it becomes hilarious, and the audience I saw it with ended up rolling in the aisles. We weren't laughing with it, we were laughing at it.

Story matters, but like the early movies of Tony's idol Jackie, characters and plot exist only to set up a series of mind-blowing, perfectly choreographed fight stunts. There's action aplenty, courtesy of eye-popping battle sequences which seem to go on for days. What's great about Tony Jaa's work is how brutal it all feels. I'm not talking about drenching the picture in blood, but when Jaa hits someone he hits them hard. Heads fly back, arms break, and more often than not there's a sickening crunch.

Fancy footwork is nice, but it's worthless if you don't believe that damage is done. Tony and his team are masters at making audiences believe those knees to the head really, really hurt. Protector takes that almost to an excess. In his previous movie Ong Bak Tony's trademark was bashing in skulls. Here he seems almost fixated on breaking arms and, in a scene almost certainly patterned after the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill Volume 1, Tony takes on scores of gangsters by snapping the limbs of each and every one. The soundtrack is all but replaced by the crunching sound of grinding, cracking and breaking bones as Jaa flings mobility deprive opponents on the floor around him in a circular heap. Maybe it sounds a little gruesome, and it's definitely silly, but it's also a lot of fun. Actually, maybe that's what Tony Jaa really needs. Let's get him away form these horrible Thai directors and pair him up with Tarantino. Then he might have something.

The most frustrating thing to me about The Protector is that in some ways it's a big step forward from Jaa and Prachya Pinkaew's last movie together, Ong Bak. In Ong Bak Jaa's fight moves were spot on, but Pinkaew didn't seem to know the best way to show them. He overdid it with excessive slow motion and the repetitive replaying of key shots. Here, Pinkaew has fixed all of that, and does a much better job of showing how truly awesome his star's stunts are. On the flipside of that though, the storytelling is a major step backward from Ong Bak, which while not perfect, at least resembled something coherent.

Having now seen two Jaa/Prinkaew productions, I think something is becoming pretty clear. If Tony Jaa is the heir apparent to Jackie Chan, then Prachya Pinkaew is the heir apparent to Uwe Boll. Look, the guy gets bonus points because he's working in Thailand and because let's face it, until recently it hasn't exactly been a haven of quality cinema, or even running water for that matter. It's just that Jaa is such a talent, it seems almost a waste to let him continue being filmed by such an amateurish hand. Asian cinema buffs will probably burn me at the stake for this, but can we get Jaa into the warm embrace of a nice, slick, Hollywood director and see what happens when someone who knows what they're doing works with him? As a performer, Tony has tremendous potential. He has yet to realize it. Bring in Tarantino!

Josh Tyler