Review: The Protector (Tom Yum Goong) (2005)

After exploding onto the international action scene with Ong Bak, star Tony Jaa and team return in an attempt to top their own bone-crunching hit.

Originally called Tom Yum Goong, the version we get in Australia comes by way of the Weinstein Company, most recently infamous for their stripped-down version of Snowpiercer. This time significant changes were made, beginning with the title. The Protector is actually not too bad — as it references the theme of the film — just very generic and also tainted by association. Other major changes include chopping the running time from 110 minutes to 83 minutes, fiddling with the plot and character motivations and adding, deleting or altering lines through redubbing or different subtitles. See the Wikipedia article for a summary of the changes. Or find one of the 2-disc sets containing both versions still floating around in shops on DVD (as pictured up top) and compare and contrast for yourself. There’s a bunch of interesting features included as well which make it well worth picking up.

This movie shares the same premise as Ong Bak — country boy hero travels to the big city (Sydney instead of Bangkok) to reclaim stolen property (two elephants instead of the head of a buddha statue) — but to avoid being too much of a retread this film aims higher, with a larger and more international story, matched with an expanded action palette. While the action is diverse and for the most part well done, it’s not always enough to divert attention from the story falling on its face.

It’s a real shame, as there’s a decent martial arts tale at the film’s core. Kham (Tony Jaa) is a Jaturungkabart, a member of an historic line of traditionally trained warriors responsible for looking after elephants for the royal family. As some idyllic opening scenes show, the animals are basically his whole life and their theft is like having his family kidnapped and failing at his job all rolled into one. It’s easy to understand Kham’s desperation to get them back. Although we only see a little of the training, some recognisable moves are still worked into the later choreography. Story is also built through action in a very fitting way in the finale, as Kham turns his training on its head to take down some giant foes of his own.

This basic but satisfying story is muddled by throwing in a bunch of poorly handled subplots that eat up running time, while leaving gaping holes in the main story. There’s a whole lot of guff about criminal infighting and police corruption, but none of it matters to Kham at all. He’s not even aware of most of it. He simply turns up somewhere, yells “Where are my elephants?” and charges into the fray. Connective tissue to join scenes is often missing. As a result, the plot relies on a bunch of spectacular coincidences and character decisions that make no sense. People frequently pop into a scene from just out of frame or around a corner.

Sometimes the strength of the action helps overcome the poor story. When Kham crashes the party of those responsible for stealing his elephants, the surprise of his dynamic entrance grabs our interest, even though we have no clear idea how he tracked these people down. A battle against a series of opponents in a burning temple is visually arresting and superbly choreographed, so perhaps you won’t question where each fighter came from or why Kham returns to the temple immediately after deciding it was too dangerous to stay there.

Thankfully the central action scene is a properly justified moment. An assault on the titular restaurant, it opens with a celebrated four-minute single take sequence as Kham battles through 5 storeys’ worth of henchmen to discover the truth about the fate of his elephants. It’s an impressive piece of film-making, with a huge number of stunt performers, extras and crew required to pull it off. (If you have the DVD feature on the scene be sure to have a look, as director Prachya Pinkaew dissects all five takes that were shot, as well as covering some of the logistical difficulties that had to be overcome, such as finding a camera operator with the stamina to climb five storeys wearing a custom camera rig.) Being such a long scene, it’s not as tight as the rest of the action, and Jaa gets visibly tired which lends it a scrappy realistic feel. When Kham arrives out of breath at the top of the stairs to once more bellow “Where are my elephants?” it’s the end of an arduous journey, and the single take really sells it.

There is a deliberate humourous streak running through proceedings, which makes the silliness a bit easier to swallow. Sometimes you’ll be laughing with the film rather that at it. A few random elements are tossed in too, like an in-movie anti-piracy reminder and Kham bumping into a Jackie Chan look-a-like, which I took to be a “following in his footsteps” moment. By the end though, the film gets pretty raw, as an enraged Kham really throws down the brutality in a bone-shattering battle featuring more cracks than a chiropractic visit or ten.

Since the film spends most of its time in Sydney there’s plenty of local interest to see. There’s the expected harbour bridge, opera house and Sydney tower shots, but it’s cool to see smaller stuff like familiar street signs and the light rail. I’m no expert, but the old tram cars seen in a warehouse could pass for being from Sydney, although I doubt they’re the real deal seeing as how they are used in the action.

The local people don’t come off so well initially, as Kham is treated with silent suspicion by a customs official and his taxi driver calls him “pretty boy” and bluntly asks whether he’s in the country legally. I guess it helps emphasise Kham’s fish-out-of-water status and anyway, before long he’s delivering a flying justice knee in front of a billowing Australian flag, so I guess the film-makers think we’re alright. Although probably not intentional, Kham gets his own Crocodile Dundee moment — except instead of pulling out a bigger knife, he performs a physical feat Paul Hogan would have no hope of pulling off.

In the end, The Protector is very uneven, but nonetheless entertaining. Break down it does, but it’s pretty spectacular to watch. Then there’s a sequel if you want more.

7 CGI dreams out of 10.
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