For a brief while there in the first decade of the 2000’s it looked like Thailand’s Tony Jaa was laying claim to the title of best action star of the 21st century. Ong Bak introduced him as a viable and extremely capable action lead, and the next few years saw that status confirmed with two sequels and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong). And then he went nuts.
In his defense he was trapped in an incredibly restrictive contract and his ego had grown to elephant-sized proportions, but that’s a long story for a different day. The good news is that he looks to in the process of making a comeback. He’s currently filming Fast & Furious 7, has two Dolph Lundgren films in the can and is rumored to be attached to sequels for The Raid and SPL. He also made a sequel with the same people whose tight grip almost drove him mad.
The Protector 2 begins similarly to its predecessor with Kham (Jaa) living a bachelor’s life in rural Thailand with his pet elephant Khon. Trouble starts when the pachyderm is abducted by some ruthless thugs for nefarious purposes forcing Kham to once again leave home to rescue Khon and kick some ass along the way. A repetitive plot is bad enough, but while the first film was loaded with fantastic fight sequences and visibly impressive stunts to make up for it the sequel limps along under the weight of action “assisted” by ridiculously obvious wire work and abysmal CGI.
The otherwise simple plot is filled to bursting with unnecessary filler starting with the political instability of the neighboring country of Katana. The fictional nation’s troubles appear to be wrapped up by the time the opening credits end, but an important peace summit coming up hints that there could be more at play. Kham’s quest brings him into contact with his old friend Officer Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao) who once again provides the film’s comedic moments, but it’s the newcomers that bring a real mixed bag.
Jija Yanin (Chocolate) stars as one half of a pair of sisters who think Kham killed their uncle, and the pair proceed to pursue him to exact revenge leading to a handful of fights that fail to show either talent at their best. Yanin and her character are wasted elements here, the one never able to truly shine and the other presented as ineffective and lacking in depth. Equally disappointing, but at least without expectations, is Rhatha Phongam (pictured above) as a female fighter/assassin who only appears to be here for added sex appeal. It’s clear she’s a pretty face and not a fighter, but whereas Gareth Evans used extensive training and smart editing to make Julie Estelle (aka Hammer Girl) into a believable killing machine in The Raid 2 Rhatha is given nothing but ridiculous outfits. The best of the newcomers is Marrese Crump. He plays a henchman who gets to tussle with Jaa on several occasions, and it’s those fights that are the film’s real high points. Crump shows off a little bit of personality and a whole lot of fighting ability. He’s fast, flexible and believably powerful, and I expect to see him leading his own films sometime soon.
Which leaves us with RZA. Good god people stop confusing his affection for martial arts movies for anything resembling talent. He plays the film’s big baddie which means not only are we forced to see this walking lack of charisma try to “act” but we’re also made witness to his fighting style called sad-fu. (He himself may not call it that.) Worse, we’re supposed to go along with it when RZA kicks Jaa’s butt on more than one occasion. Because seriously?
As bad as RZA is though the film’s biggest downfall is its dependence on CGI and wire work. The original featured all manner of true stunts, acrobatic feats and painful-looking take downs. This one settles for a similar sequence but sets them in front of obvious green screens. The majority of the film’s action suffers a similar fate meaning scenes no longer impress in any fashion with the two biggest embarrassments being the finale and a sequence featuring guys fighting while their feet are on fire. It’s a stylistic choice. It’s a dumb choice.
It’s a shame for so many reasons, but primary among them is that Jaa still manages to show that he has the skills needed to make an electric action film. He gets to display them during his fights with Crump despite director Prachya Pinkaew’s efforts to make his film as unimpressive as possible, but it’s only enough to steady the film at the level of mediocrity. Action has been Pinkaew’s only calling card, and now that he’s losing that it’s even better news that Jaa is getting out from under his thumb.
The Upside: Tony Jaa can still move and fight when allowed to do so unburdened; Marrese Crump makes an impressive feature debut
The Downside: So much CGI and wire work; RZA is not convincing as an actor or a fighter; Jeeja Yanin is underused and made ineffective; “story” is too busy
On the Side: The end credits feature outtakes similar in style to the ones Jackie Chan is known for, but the difference is that while Chan showed the painful reality of his and his team’s incredible stunt work these show green screens and actors suspended in harnesses and wires.
The Protector 2 is currently available on VOD and opens in limited theatrical release on May 2, 2014.