No stunt doubles, no wires, no CGI. That's the way I like my porn, and my action movies (and my pornos that masquerade as action movies). It's hard to not like the combination, as far too many actioners seem so artificial, like watching an algorithm kick ass. Integers, watch out, some polygonal bad ass is out for vengeance!!!
Tony Jaa, Muay Thai martial artist extraordinaire, couldn't act his way out of a bargain bin, but the way he throws his body around like a deadly rag doll, or spider monkey on crack, leaves little wanting. After working as a stunt double, the amazingly talented Jaa got his break in 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior,' directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Billed as a second coming, in a sense, of classic fighting films, reliant on talent rather than technology, the film became quite the success. What better way for the star who made the film to parlay the momentum than to reteam with the director on yet another high intensity adrenaline fest? With 'Tom yum goong' (known in the states as 'The Protector'), the story hasn't changed all that much, with some less than subtle substitutions, but the end result remains much the same.
Kham (Jaa) has a special relationship with the elephants he grew up with and trained around his entire life. It's his job to protect these elephants, a holy symbol of sorts in Bangkok. When his two elephants are stolen, and his father murdered in said elephant-napping, it is Kham's task to retrieve his extended family members before danger befalls them. With little more than a red scarf, determination, and his martial arts training, Kham is out to right the wrongs that have befallen him, and take down anyone in his way. By kicking their asses.
The transition from Thailand in 'Ong Bak' to Australia in 'The Protector' is very natural, considering the racial diversity of the land down under (think 'Romper Stomper,' only not so ridiculous). That, and the whole return of Petchtai Wongkamlao (who played Jaa's less-than-scrupulous cousin in 'Ong Bak') as Mark, a cop in the Sydney police, who is as dirty as the others, but has a shining light of redemption ahead of him. Pumwaree Yodkamol returns as well, though in such a small role that she's hardly worth mentioning. The writing is more than strangely familiar, though the direction has improved slightly, with the action spots sometimes being shown in slow motion, rather than repeatedly at different speeds in the middle of the action.
'The Protector,' which can also be dubbed 'Dude, Where's My Elephant?,' is basically the same story as 'Ong Bak,' with elephants replacing decapitated Buddha heads, but the film works on many more levels. Many more ass kicking levels. The action is far more taut, and even a bit more extreme, as Jaa proves he is much akin to a one man army as he takes on gangs, private armies (think the Crazy 88 from 'Kill Bill'), and the most powerful private hired guns available to the villain of the story, the power-starved Madame Rose (Xing Jing), whose story varies between cuts of the film.
You know you're in for a fun ride once the story is established, and the action kicks in. Out of nowhere, Jaa comes flying through a room, literally, in the first of many one-against-numerous fight sequences. The whoop ass is always different, despite the sheer number of fight scenes in the film, removing the potential to get stale. Jaa takes on bicyclers, roller bladers, and quad-riding punks, all wielding fluorescent tubes, with numerous extended shots that add to the awesomeness, as damn near anyone can do a two second shot in thirty tries, repeatedly, and cobble it together. It would look like something out of a Michael Bay film, and no one wants that. No one.
But 'The Protector' isn't remembered for the fluorescent tubes, and the great choreography in that scene. Rather, it's the tracking shot, found in the Tom yum goong restaurant, as we follow the carnage inflicted by Kham as he seeks out Johnny (Johnny Nguyen), the man he associates as the link to finding the missing elephants. We move up the ramp, swooping between rooms, for what feels like ten minutes (it's actually less than five, but the awe that is inspired makes it feel double, which is a good thing) as the set gets torn to shit from flying bodies, culminating in a fight with Johnny and his crew on the top floor, as patrons dine on rare animals. While later fight scenes up the ante in terms of the physical prowess on display by Jaa's opponents (including former wrestler Nathan Jones, who was featured in Jet Li's 'Fearless'), no scene can match the awesomeness of the fight that concludes the second act.
There are numerous cuts of the film, with this release containing two of them (the German cut is not included), the 110 minute Thaiwanese cut, and the 83 minute American version of the film, dubbed the "theatrical version." The differences between the two are damn near night and day. For first time viewers, the Thai cut is recommended, as it fleshes out the story, with numerous sideplots, and characters that don't find their way (legitimately, at least) into the shortened version. The Madame Rose is fleshed out, in more ways than one, as the villain is given a transexual twist (which sounds like a term you'd find on urbandictionary.com). Action sequences, particularly the Crazy 88-esque fight near the end of the film, have more bone-crunching goodness, that can drown out other bits of the fight, like actual impact. The Weinstein trimmed version of the film removes most of the character development, background scenes, and as well as half of the first 20 minutes. Set ups to fights are shortened, as the film almost jumps from fight to fight. Madame Rose is ambiguous, and countless subplots, including the one involving the tape, vanish, or are just forgotten, artifacts of scenes that couldn't fully be chopped. Even better yet, entire characters disappear with no resolution. It's a mess, but for fans mostly wanting to see the Jaa doing what the Jaa does best, the shorter version is concentrated foot-to-face goodness.
I love Tony Jaa films, as they don't aspire to be anything other than showcases for the extreme physical talent within the Cambodian-born star. There's nothing wrong in not pretending to be something you're not. Action for the sake of action, can sometimes be much, much more enjoyable than action with an actual plot and real, developed characters.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'The Protector' arrives on Blu-ray from Vivendi and the Weinstein Company on a BD50 dual layer disc. The cover art features the Dragon Dynasty label, and the spine indicates it is the third title in the series. Upon inserting the disc, a prolonged "please wait" screen lingers until the company credits, far too long for my tastes (this isn't exactly a complex menu, or anything like that). The two cuts of the film can be chosen from immediately after pressing the "play film" tab.
This Dragon Dynasty release from Vivendi/Weinstein comes with a 1.85:1 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode that is honestly beyond words. I'm no 'The Protector' expert by any means, so I'm not going to defend aesthetic choices that detract from the visual presentation. I'm calling this turkey what it is, not what it wants to be.
Color bleed is light, grain is sporadic (from light/almost non-existant to outright invading army presence between shots at times), noise is extremely annoying, and skin tones often have a red tint to them. Lines can disappear and reappear at random, like they were meant for a scissor, leading me to believe that there is some real tampering going on...but all that is nothing compared to the fact that over half the picture can be smeared, blurred, and hideous as all get out at random. At first, it seems the non-emphasized portions of the film get blurred, in a manner that seems somewhat intentional, as to emphasize portions, but as the film progresses, more and more important bits get the Vaseline treatment. Half of an elephant, lubed up like it were about to be in a Turkish orgy. The first real close-up shot of Jaa has clear and focused eyes, yet a mouth that looks like it is seen through frosted bathroom glass.
Detail levels do take a hell of a hit, but there are some shining moments, like the rough elephant hides, with all their nooks and crannies, and the entire sprinkler/water floor fight sequence, with all the kicked up liquid goodness. Colors are bold, with especially popping greens. Black levels are decent, though shadow detail is somewhat minimal. Call me a whiner, if you must, but I cannot praise video that looks this atrocious.
Since both the Thai and Weinstein cuts of the film have the same problems in the same spots, it is safe to assume that these flaws are probably inherent in the material, be it intentional or no. Sometimes films make funny aesthetic choices (intentionally hot contrast, for example, for mood) that don't translate well in high def, and while the transfers portray the material accurately, ugly is ugly, in my book. Some films will never look amazing, and, much like 'Ong Bak,' 'The Protector' may very well be one of them.
The audio for 'The Protector' comes in a variety of flavors. The Thai version of the film includes an English/Thai mix in Dolby Digital 5.1. This isn't a bad track, by any means, as it is actually a pretty decent lossy track (think 'Hero,' only a little less awesome). Dialogue (yes, there's dialogue in the film) isn't ever truly all that dominant in this roller coaster/music video of a film, as the emphasis is always on hard hits, and music cues. There is nice distinction between channels, appropriate atmosphere volume and activity, and nice variations in volume over time, instead of the same ol' same ol' for the entire film. Directionality is solid, with nice movement to boot (particularly from the quad and the motorboat chase), and while hardly jaw dropping, they're not albatrosses, either. There are a few bass rumbles and bumps, particularly from pissed off elephant stomps, though the low end doesn't get too much attention. High pitched dialogue can be rather flat, so watch out for any furious or wailing screams.
The "Theatrical" (Weinstein) cut of the film defaults to Dolby Digital 5.1, though a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is available. The differences between the two versions of the film are massive, not only in content, but in audio, as the score is redone for this shorter version by the RZA. At times, the film feels like a completely different beast, despite having almost all the same content as the Thai cut due to such, moods just can feel different (which is also caused by the fact that there is far, far more English spoken here). This track receives greatly elevated bass levels, noticeable immediately in the new text opening. Roars have much more powerful depths, particularly from Por-Yai (that'd be the big ass elephant with the huge tusks). The score has a massive amount of bass in it, and can sometimes overpower other elements. The constant breaking of bones in fight scenes are less pronounced, and far less recycled sounding than in the Thai cut, making real hard impacts audible, instead of just *snap,* *crackle,* and *pop.* Dialogue can still be shrill at times.
As mentioned above, there are two cuts of the film. That has to count as some kind of supplement. Annoyingly, when viewing extras, when done, the screen will go to 1080i before going to 1080p for the menu. if the extras were in 1080i, it'd not be so bad, but this makes for 3 resolutions per each extra played, in a sense. ANNOYING!
'The Protector' ('Tom yum goong') is little more than a vehicle for Tony Jaa to fly around like Superman, solve mysteries while kicking ass like Batman, and wear skin tight spandex cupping his supple breasts like Wonder...wait...no. Action fans will get plenty to enjoy in either cut of the film, either the self indulgent Thai cut, or the trimmed to the point of incoherency USA version. With video that may be troubled all the way back to the source, and audio that differs from cut to cut, and a somewhat pale set of extras, this disc is hard to recommend as a blind buy. But every self respecting action afficionado needs to check this film out at least once, especially for the lengthy cuts found within.