Street Fabulous Must Insist That You Bounce Bounce: The Protector and Ong-Bak
Not having written about Ong-Bak, I guess I can't use it for shorthand. Instead, I can give a plot summary of both Ong-Bank and The Protector (Thai title: Tom yum goong, but also inexplicably known as The Honour of the Dragon in Europe and slightly less perplexingly Warrior King in the UK). Both are directed by Prachya Pinkaew, who also wrote the stories (but not the screenplays).
Tony Jaa is (Ting [Ong-Bak]/Kham [Protector]), a young man raised in an idyllic traditional setting in rural Thailand. Nobody likes an idyll so Bad Modern/Urban People hatch a plot to steal (the head from the village's Buddha/the elephants that the village raises for eventual use by the king). Rural though the villagers may be, they are not stupid. They recognize that Tony Jaa is a freak of nature and that there is little reason for everyone to get all het up when (Ting/Kham) can journey to the big bad city (Bangkok/Sydney) all by his lonesome, find a savvy fuck-up of a sidekick (Petchtai Wongkamlao as Humlae/Dirty Balls/George in Ong Bak and the the more minimalist "Mark" in Protector), kick asses, and get back the sacred doohickey while still retaining his fundamental innocence. Not the most complex or original plot ever, but also not mired in WTFness of some martial arts films like, say Master of the Flying Guillotine (which I love, so please remove yourself from being all up in my face about it).
If you don't like martial arts movies for the constant escalation of ludicrous kickings of asses, I suppose it's unlikely that you'll find anything in this pair of movies. That's the most honest assessment that I can give, but Tony Jaa strongly tempts me to lie, a la the Frugal Gourmet, who once told me "If you like liver, you'll love sweetbreads; if you hate liver, you'll love sweetbreads." I don't know that you'll love these movies if you hate martial arts and/or action movies. But Tony Jaa is worth taking a chance on.
Like his heroes, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Jaa doesn't use any stunt doubling or computer images (for humans in fights---the jury is still out on whether or not it's ok to throw a baby elephant in Thailand and/or Australia). In Jaa's movies, though, there is the added h0tn355 of no wires. His fighting style (Muay Thai), at least to my ignorant eye, presents something that is visually new and fascinating to watch. I'm not arguing for the superiority of a fighting style (which I'm wholly unqualified to do) or martial artist (you'd better believe that I love watching Jackie Chan and Jet Li and will continue to do so), but watching Jaa, I find myself constantly surprised and almost re-learning how to watch a fight.
There's also the fact that, as an actor, Jaa is just so cute and earnest. As seen above, the movies are somewhat formulaic. The wistful message about the loss of habitat and traditional ways is pretty standard within a subset of the genre. But Jaa is ideally suited to play the elements. He sells the single-minded, hyper-honorable sense of drive and purpose. It's true that Ong-Bak pulls things off with more finesse, because it's a better script, but Jaa plays the emotional material well in both.
In general, I have to give the nod to Ong-Bak as the better of the two films. The more straightforward story and smaller canvas makes the rural vs. urban/traditional vs. modern message easier to sell. Both M and I had the feeling that The Protector had been edited to hell and back, so some of the Chinese/Thai politics were baffling, and the two nonevil (or moderately evil) female characters were totally p@5t3d 0n Y@y! Also, we were unable to determine the reasoning behind what was dubbed and what was subtitled. All the Thai seemed to be subtitled, whereas Chinese seems to have been dubbed (at first, it seemed as if Evil people were dubbed and Good people were subtitled). Some of the Australians were dubbed, even when they appeared to have been speaking English during the original filming. In any case, it was a bit bewildering and unfortunately motivated the fucking gaggle of teenage pindicks behind us to demonstrate their rapier wit verbal diarrhea at high volume throughout.
In terms of fight-y goodness, it's more of a draw between the two films. Enjoying the pure Muay Thai style as I did, I didn't mind that the fights focused more on showcasing it, rather than constantly escalating the props, paraphenalia, and styles. That said, The Protector features and amazing capoeira fighter (Lateef Crowder) and some of the biggest men in this or any other universe. Also, there is nothing not funny about the Vietnamese Johnny Depp pulling a cord marked (and I swear, I am not deliberately making this up, although it may be faulty memory) "Redfern" to summon his gang of 3xxxtr3333m3 5p0rtz ninjas: inline skaters, dirt bikers, and even an anonymous fetishest on a 4-wheel ATV. Similarly, you have to give props for ambition to Prachya Pinkaew for the 4.5-minute one-shot fight. One-shots are always cool. In this case, though, it did mean we lost some of the ass kicking as Jaa ducks behind walls and sends heads through latticework and whatnot, so he does lose some points for execution.
No one wants to see Tony Jaa achieve international and mainstream success more than I do. (Ok, that's ludicrous. Of course Tony Jaa and his nearest and dearest and financial backers want that more than I do, but you get the idea.) The Protector is certainly a step in that direction with its larger budget, more diverse cast, and filming in Australia. But some of the things that, presumably, were included to appeal to Westerners ended up being downright goofy. The first fight, for example, takes place in a Thai gangster's lair. I swear, they had a time machine and filmed it either on the set of Mitchell or one of the sleazy pr0n movies Ed Wood did toward the end of his career. Similarly, everyone loves a fast boat chase, but not really being able to see what's going on (leaving aside for the moment the question of WHY it's going on) and asking yourself if that really IS Jan Hammer music you're hearing and if you're having some kind of highly specialized stroke that involves hallucinations of Miami Vice kind of detracts from the experience.
I think, ultimately, Tony Jaa will make it. His physical abilities are too amazing to go unnoticed for long. And hopefully he'll wind up crossing paths with people who'll tailor vehicles to him, rather than forcing him into an already well-trodden path. Again, I hasten to point out that I love that path. I get real pleasure out of watching the tried and true martial arts movies, whether they're new or old. But still, it's exciting to have something new on the horizon.