Considering the success of 2003’s Ong-bak and the sudden international interest in martial arts wunderkind Tony Jaa, it’s unsurprising that Jaa swiftly reunited with Ong-bak director Prachya Pinkaew for another round of cinematic mayhem. The result is 2005’s The Protector (a.k.a. The Warrior King), and it’s one of the most viscerally exciting action pictures in recent memory. For sure, its plot is borderline incomprehensible and Pinkaew’s storytelling is garbled, but the film is nevertheless a satisfying showcase of bone-breaking brawls, punches, kicks and phenomenal fight choreography, ensuring the picture is worth watching for action fans at the very least.
When two of his family’s beloved elephants are stolen by wicked criminals, Kham (Jaa) is forced to travel from his native Thailand to Sydney in Australia to retrieve them. Once in Sydney, Kham becomes entangled in the city’s seedy underworld populated by corrupt cops and Chinese gangsters. As he searches for his elephants, he receives assistance from a Thai police official (Wongkamlao) and a sympathetic young Thai girl (Khongmalai) who was forced into prostitution.
Anyone who saw Ong-bak is likely to experience déjà vu throughout The Protector. For this film, a missing Buddha statue head was simply replaced with stolen elephants, resulting in a similar plot following a similar trajectory. Hackneyed stories are typical in the action genre, but Pinkaew’s storytelling is unusually weak and choppy. Most glaringly, scene transitions are often jarring and poor – some scenes just end abruptly as if missing a second half, while other scenes seem to just begin without sufficient context as if they’re missing a first half. Furthermore, an early boat chase is absolutely dreadful; the editing is unbelievably choppy, it makes no coherent sense at all, and a few shots were visibly sped up. It’s a major red flag if an action scene in an action movie ignites more bewilderment than excitement. Suffice it to say, too, The Protector proceeds with the logic of an 8-bit video game, as legions of nameless thugs materialise out of thin air for Jaa to combat (including various buffed up wrestlers). One assumes the main bad guys just have an endless supply of henchmen who loyally follow them all the time.
The horrible boat chase aside, Pinkaew’s action sequences are often fluid and fun. Whenever Jaa is permitted the chance to engage opponents using his trademark Muay Thai fighting style, The Protector comes alive like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Jaa and Pinkaew cranked up the levels of brutality and intensity to such extremes that Ong-bak looks positively restrained in comparison. Jaa’s fighting is rough and raw yet beautiful, with a mixture of stunning balletic movements and vicious battering that’s sure to leave you squirming. Better yet, Pinkaew eschewed heavily-stylised filming and editing, allowing us to watch Jaa work without any flashy distractions. While some scenes were achieved with the aid of CGI, no digital effects were used to enhance Jaa’s fighting – the crazy little bastard did everything the old-fashioned way.
The biggest selling point of The Protector is a single Steadicam shot running a good five minutes which tracks Jaa as he fights his way to the top of a criminal hideout. Along the way he takes out dozens of opponents; throwing them over banisters, breaking through walls, and tossing them through glass. It’s mind-boggling to consider the intricate planning it must’ve taken to stage such a shot, not to mention all the time it must’ve taken to choreograph the fights between Jaa and all of the poor sons of bitches who dare to cross his path. The scene is one little sliver of this 110-minute picture, yet it renders the entire film worth watching, demonstrating that trite storytelling is forgivable in an action flick just as long as there’s phenomenal ass-kicking to compensate.
On a slightly less positive note, the acting is uniformly dreadful and the dialogue is insufferably bad. Jaa is worthy of inheriting the martial arts mantle left behind by the likes of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but he still has yet to show the same charisma which characterised his predecessors. As a result, while Jaa’s fighting is awesome, interest often wanes between the brutal beatings. Alongside Jaa, the Australian performers sound appallingly stiff and awkward, while the acting is even worse from the Asian performers who speak broken English. And don’t get me started on Petchtai Wongkamlao… The irritating man was intolerable enough in Ong-bak, and he’s even worse here. Wongkamlao specialises in comic relief, but he would be far better used as a mute or a corpse.
To their credit, those behind The Protector attempted to infuse the film with some type of heart. Its story struggles with coherency, yet, at its core, this is a tale about a boy’s love for his beloved elephants – and a hero working to rescue animals is a refreshing alternative to saving women or childhood friends. Still, there’s no getting around the film’s myriad of problems, making this a film strictly for the action junkies. And if you do seek out the movie, make sure it’s the original 110-minute edit. See, when The Protector was being shopped around for an American release, the Weinstein Company got involved, and they’re notorious for butchering. Thus, the film was trimmed by about 25 minutes for its Stateside release, which makes no fucking sense. This reviewer has only viewed the original cut, and has no intention of checking out the butchered US version. I suggest you think similarly.