In 2003, a little unknown film from Thailand called Ong-Bak rocketed up the charts of action and martial arts film fanatics the world over, and for good reason. Unlike so many action movies these days, which make use of copious amounts of CGI, wire effects, stunt doubles, Ong-Bak was, for all intents and purposes, the real deal — no special effects, no wires, just lots and lots of jawdropping stuntwork and cringe-inducing martial arts choreography.
Not surprisingly, the film’s star — Tony Jaa — was soon being proclaimed as the successor to the throne of both Jackie Chan and Jet Li, due to his incredible abilities and seemingly suicidal risk-taking. All eyes were on Jaa’s next film, Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector here in the States), and the clips that began popping up on the Web were certainly encouraging. Tom Yum Goong promised to be Ong-Bak turned up to eleven. Which, considering that Ong-Bak itself had turned the action movie thrills up to eleven, was something indeed.
But the fact is that Tom Yum Goong is a decidedly inferior film, and proof that Jaa isn’t quite up to Chan and Li’s levels as a martial arts star. He’s got the bone-breaking chops to be sure, but he’s missing the necessary charisma — and it doesn’t help when he’s backed by a storyline as weak and nonsensical as Tom Yum Goong’s.
Jaa is Kham, the latest in a long line of Thai elephant warriors, warriors who have protected the royal elephants throughout the generations. As such, the elephants that belong to his family aren’t mere pets or farm animals, but rather, more like brothers and cousins. So when the family’s prized elephants are stolen, suffice to say that Kham is going to bust as many heads as necessary to bring them back.
Kham follows the thieves to Sydney, Australia, where a series of misunderstandings causes him to partner up with a Thai/Australian cop named Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao, aka Ong-Bak’s “Dirty Balls”) and a Thai stripper named Pla (Bongkoj Khongmalai). Soon, Kham finds himself running afoul of the ruthless Madame Rose (Xing Jing), who has herself a veritable army of wrestlers, martial artists, street gangs, and corrupt police officers who are all willing to get busted up — er, I mean, to do anything to keep Kham from his elephants.
Threadbare, nonsensical plots are pretty much a given in martial arts cinema, as the sequence of events and character arcs are pretty much there only to set up the next thrilling martial arts smackdown. But even so, Tom Yum Goong’s is especially thin. While the elephant-centric plot is certainly interesting, and illuminates an aspect of Thai culture that most folks might not know about, it’s difficult to take things even remotely seriously when the film begins milking as much melodrama and emotion as possible out of the relationship between Kham and his baby elephant.
Adding to this are the major plot holes, poor explanations, ultra-convenient coincidences, and glossed over character motivations that make up so much of Tom Yum Goong’s storyline. For example, when Kham sets out to find who stole his family’s elephants, the film immediately jumps to the first major action scene, with little, if any, set-up or explanation — which does little to add any urgency to Kham’s beatdown.
And once he gets to Sydney, such ambiguity only gets worse. We’re given only the barest of hints as to why the villains stole the elephants, other than that they’re villainous. When the big reveal happens at the film’s end and the villain’s diabolical schemes are laid out for all to see, it’s disappointing to see that, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be any diabolical scheme whatsoever. Rather, the scene is played out in a very surreal manner that only adds to the puzzlement. At least, until the bodies start hitting the floor, that is.
It’s obvious that Tom Yum Goong’s producers were hoping for the film to make a big splash in the international market. Given Ong-Bak’s success, which was largely word-of-mouth at first, they’d have been dumb not to. And so they take a page out of Jackie Chan’s filmmaking guide: they transplant the film from Thailand to the slick, stylish — and English-speaking — burg that is Sydney, bring in a bunch of C-list Western actors to flesh out the cast, and put as much of the dialog as possible in English. English that, unfortunately, gets butchered time and again, especially by Wongkamlao. (I suspect that the reason why Wongkamlao’s comic timing is so off here when compared to Ong-Bak is due to the fact that most of his dialog is English, not his first language.)
But you and I both know that it ultimately comes down to the fights in Tom Yum Goong. How does the Muay Thai mayhem of Tom Yum Goong compare to the Muay Thai mayhem of Ong-Bak? Again, it’s obvious that the filmmakers decided to pull out all of the stops, and so every martial arts scene in here is long and full of carnage, whether it’s a 20 minute warehouse fight or a long single take through an opulent hotel that finds Kham leaving countless bodies in his wake.
However, and it pains me to say this, it gets fairly repetitious and predictable by the end. If a guy is standing in front of a window or glass door and Kham walks in the room, you can rest assured that he’ll be going through it headfirst. And when Kham takes on a room of 40 baddies and proceeds to disable them all, complete with gut-wrenching sound effects, it becomes rather tedious for all of its length.
That being said, the good stuff in Tom Yum Goong is outstanding. My favorite fight scene is also the cheesiest, where Kham takes on a bunch of extreme sports enthusiasts in an abandoned warehouse. Skateboarders, BMX racers, rollerbladers, dirt bikers, 4-wheelers — they’re all there, looking like a cross between Mad Max and the X-Games. It’s here where Jaa comes closest to Jackie Chan, bounding over and diving through all manner of warehouse obstacles — abandoned trolley cars, trestles, glass walls — and dispatching the baddies in the most acrobatic and creative ways possible.
All in all, Tom Yum Goong isn’t really that dissimilar from a lot of Jackie Chan movies that came out in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, such as Rumble In The Bronx and the Operation Condor movies. Those movies were also saddled by inane plots and acting that was beyond hammy — but the difference is that Jaa simply doesn’t have the charisma and gleeful insanity that makes even something like Operation Condor enjoyable on some level. Jaa is fairly wooden throughout Tom Yum Goong, with his acting range basically running the gamut from screaming to grimacing to grimacing with a slightly different expression.
In his defense, the movie doesn’t require much more from him, nor does it allow him any opportunity to be anything other than a bone-crunching, elbow-dropping dervish. As a master of Muay Thai kickboxing, Jaa certainly has the physical abilities to enter the ranks of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. However, it’s much too soon to tell whether or not he has the onscreen presence and bearing of his childhood idols. And unfortunately, a film like Tom Yum Goong isn’t helping him much. Here’s hoping that his next handful of films gives him a chance to really strut his stuff, as both a martial artist and as an actor.