The news arrived last week that celebrated Thai action choreographer Panna Rittikrai has passed away, at the far too young age of 53. He had been the driving force behind Thailand’s new wave of action movies, touched off by his work with his student Tony Jaa in 2003’s Ong Bak. Amidst a cinematic sea of elaborate fantasy wirework, CGI-enhanced stunts and elaborate, unrealistic weaponry, Panna’s films brought a grounding in reality back to modern action cinema: hard-hitting Muay Thai, often with a focus on traditional forms — and no wires, limited visual effects, and the occasional absolutely jaw-dropping stunt. (Readers interested in knowing more about his work should read Thai film blogger Wise Kwai’s In Memoriam post, which is far more detailed than anything I could write!)
So, I felt compelled to pick up The Protector 2 over the weekend and take a look at one of Panna’s last credits as choreographer. It’s a sequel to 2005’s The Protector (AKA Tom Yum Goong, its original title), in which hero Kham (Tony Jaa) pursues villains who have stolen his beloved elephant Khon, bringing him to Sydney for nefarious purposes. Chinese gangsters, police corruption, you know the drill. We don’t have a review up here on HC, so here’s a capsule summary: This first film, made by largely the same team behind Ong Bak, had just as much effort put into its action sequences, with a selection of martial arts on display (Muay Thai, Capoeira and Chinese wushu among them) and one sequence shot in a triumphant four-minute single take. It does, however, suffer on the story side, which is more than a little thin: rushing headlong through any scenes that might hint at a bit of character development to get to the kicks and elbows. This feeling that something is missing might be explained by the more than 25 minutes cut by the Weinstein Company for the international release (see Wikipedia for a summary of the cuts), or it might be that the filmmakers were simply more focused on executing the action sequences than on how they got there.
(That’s not to say that there isn’t some fun stuff in there: the action itself is seriously impressive — particularly a series of fights in a monastery — and the Sydney setting and occasional Aussie accent make for a diverting little action B-movie. It’s just not as good as Ong Bak was, for my money.)
Moving on to the sequel, Protector 2. Tony Jaa is back as Kham, last in a line of traditionally trained warriors who worked with elephants for the royal family of Thailand. His elephant Khon — stolen once already in the first film — catches the collective eye of a bunch of gangsters, and I’ll bet you can guess what happens this time. Hunting down the elephant-nappers leads him to their boss, Vilawandei, only to discover that he’s been killed — and the most likely perpetrator in the eyes of the law (and the gangster’s two fast-kicking nieces) is Kham.
In the shadows is the biggest boss of them all, LC, played menacingly by American rapper/actor/director RZA, who commands an army of fighters (given numbers, so you know where they stand in the pecking order) and has his fingers in a lot of underground pies, from local organised crime to international intrigue.
Right from the start this second film is much more ambitious: the story picks up a background political narrative, with Thailand hosting peace talks for the war-torn fictional neighbouring country of Katana, and the filmmakers do manage to make the world of the film feel larger: more characters, bigger sets and an American villain. Window-dressing aside, though, at its core The Protector 2 is just another iteration of the story in the first film: Kham’s elephant has been stolen by evildoers and he goes wherever he has to to save him, beating his way through anyone who gets in his way.
Where the filmmakers do innovate is in the fight sequences. Panna Rittikrai’s (and Tony Jaa’s) usual box of tricks is present and correct: urban chase scenes that feel like loving homages to Jackie Chan’s work in Hong Kong in the 80s, goons in masks on motorcycles in meticulously choreographed battles, and flying knees and elbows aplenty. However, this film adds some wirework and a dab of CGI here and there, and some much more ambitious stunts in addition to the fight sequences. There’s also generally a lighter tone to the film than the darker, gorier action in (for instance) Ong Bak 2 and 3.
Martial artist Marrese Crump (Panna Rittikrai’s only Western student, and RZA’s stunt double in The Man with Iron Fists) shows up as Number Two for a couple of one-on-one fights with Jaa, and these are amongst the hardest fight sequences I’ve seen from Jaa, and certainly the highlight of the film for martial arts fans.
Another Panna protégé, Yanin “Jeeja” Vismitananda (who’s had star billing on a couple of films now: I really rather liked in lightweight action flick Raging Phoenix) plays a supporting role as one of gangster Vilawandei’s nieces and shows up periodically, spoiling for a fight. It’s great to see her alongside Jaa, but she’s terribly underwritten even by the standards of an unapologetic action film, with almost no dialogue and nothing to her character beyond her pixie looks and desire for vengeance.
Similarly, comic actor/writer/director Petchai Wongkamlao (aka Mum Jokmok) reappears as sympathetic policeman Sergeant Mark, this time in Thailand on secondment with Interpol. He’s there mostly to keep Kham out of trouble with the law, push the plot along and deploy the occasional deadpan joke.
The Protector 2 is a solid (though perhaps not incredibly new) addition to Thailand’s modern action cinema canon, and martial arts junkies will want to catch it for Jaa and Crump squaring off in a warehouse in medium shot — and, sadly, for almost the last glimpse of Panna Rittikrai’s work on film. According to Wise Kwai, his last film Vengeance of an Assassin (also directed by Prachya Pinkaew) completed filming last year, so we do have one final flick from the master choreographer to look forward to.