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Posts Tagged ‘Petchtai Wongkamlao’

Well, here’s the perfect pre-Christmas treat, a film veritably dripping with cosiness, warmth, compassion, and good humour. Or one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, anyway, based on the track records of many of the principals involved. The director is Prachya Pinkaew, and two of the lead performers are Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin. The film is Tom Yum Goong 2 – aka Warrior King 2 and The Protector 2, but in line with the treatment hereabouts of the film it’s following up, I shall be referring to it as Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant. I was expecting great things from this movie – well, not so much great things as howling rampant insanity – and I’m pleased to say that I was not really disappointed.

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The story opens with a degree of peculiar backstory concerning the fictitious Republic of Katana and a degree of structural fluff, but soon settles down to show us Tony Jaa enjoying his life in rural Thailand, where he passes his time looking after his beloved elephant and teaching the local children insanely violent martial arts.

However, all this changes when some gangsters turn up and attempt to force Tony to part with his pachyderm. Tony, naturally, says no, but all that happens is that the gangsters come back and steal the elephant as soon as he pops out for a bit. This makes our hero very cross indeed and he goes round to the chief gangster’s house to make his feelings clear in time-honoured bone-crunching style, but – much to his surprise – the crook has already been beaten to death by someone else. However, he is discovered with the corpse by the ex-villain’s doting martial arts fiend nieces, Ping Ping and Sue Sue (Yanin and Theerada Kittisiriprasert), whose response does not suggest they are pacifists.

…and at that point you may as well forget about anything remotely resembling logic, a coherent plot, or indeed reality as we know it, as Tony and Jeeja plummet into a world where… well, there’s a lot of fisticuffs, but that’s about all I’m certain of. Also returning from the first film is Petchtai Wongkamlao as Tony’s hapless mate Sarge, who is at least issued some pithy dialogue critiquing the premise of the proceedings: ‘Don’t tell me you’ve lost your elephant again! Is this an elephant or a kitten? How can you keep losing him?’ Sensible questions one and all.

Sarge, whom viewers of the first film may recall spends his days as the most preposterous cop in Sydney, is in town to help with a peace conference connected to the Republic of Katana, which dark forces are trying to interfere with. Charged with bringing about this act of premeditated beastliness is gangster LC (the noted rapperist RZA), who also runs some sort of fight circuit where the participants have numbers rather than names. It is LC and his top man Fighter Number 2 (Marrese Crump – I tell you, the names in this film…) who have ensnared Tony and his elephant in their web of bafflement, though whether this is because LC wants Tony to be Fighter Number 1, or just needs the elephant for his evil scheme (suffice to say the climax includes the dialogue ‘There’s a bomb in that elephant!’), or perhaps both, is unclear – one gets the impression they wrote the script as they were going along.

As you may have gathered, Tony Jaa Still Loves His Elephant is completely nuts, although perhaps not as flamboyantly and soaringly so as the first one, or indeed Chocolate (Pinkaew’s previous film with Jeeja Yanin) – it doesn’t include any of the really weird stuff like dream sequences about elephants or whip-wielding transgender bad guys, it’s just very, very comic booky, and not necessarily in a good way. There are some absurdly extravagant action sequences – at one point Tony finds himself pursued by a literal army of people on motor scooters, while at another there’s a scrap between Tony and a bunch of goons, all of whose feet are on fire – but that’s really all the film has.

And, while the movie doesn’t have the most inspired or varied fight sequences – there’s nothing as jawdropping as the five minute travelling shot from Tom Yum Goong – they are solid stuff. Tony spends most of the film fighting Crump, if we’re honest, but the two kick lumps out of each other with aplomb. The real shame, if you ask me, is that we never really get the sequence where Tony and Jeeja face off against one another at length. To be honest, Jeeja Yanin’s contribution to the film feels a little bit dispensable – she just rattles about the edges of the plot not doing very much. Pinkaew introduces the character of a female fighter called Number 20 (Rhatha Phongam), and you naturally assume that come the climax she will be fighting Jeeja while Tony sorts out RZA. But no. In the end this just feels like a regular Tony Jaa movie, albeit one with an extended cameo by Jeeja Yanin, rather than a proper team-up of the duo.

With the benefit of hindsight, Tom Yum Goong and Chocolate are both such boldly nutty films that it would have been very difficult for this film, whatever you want to call it, to push this particular envelope any further. By conventional standards this is not a good thriller or action movie. But as a headbanging piece of martial arts nonsense it fits the bill admirably, even if it doesn’t quite deliver everything it promises.

 

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One of the issues you get into as soon as you start offering your opinion about films in any kind of measured and thoughtful way (quiet at the back) is that of what your criteria are – and, moreover, whether you use the same ones all the time. Should you base your judgement on a low-budget British film on the same factors as that on a massive international blockbuster? The films are showing in the same theatres, runs one argument, and it’s the same ticket price for both – so the same standards should apply.

Well, hmmm. I’m not convinced, particularly when it comes to genre movies – there’s a set of tropes and expectations involved here which is not consistent. Terrible acting and a ludicrous excuse for a plot would be unforgivable in anything attempting to be a serious drama, but they are much less of an issue – and even perhaps to be expected in some of the more specialised types of film. (And, no, I’m not necessarily talking about porno.)

Of course, if you can meet all the genre requirements and include an interesting story and decent performances and direction, that’s great – even qualified failure can still result in a notable movie. I was thinking about all of these things while watching Prachya Pinkaew’s 2005 movie Tom-Yum-Goong. This is a movie from Thailand which has emerged in international territories under a variety of different titles: The Protector, Ong-Bak 2, Warrior King, Thai Dragon, Revenge of the Warrior, and so on. Personally, I always think of it as Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant, as this is what the plot to a large degree is about.

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Tony Jaa plays a fine young upstanding Thai fellow from a long line of warriors and elephant-lovers. He and his dad have an elephant which they are terribly fond of, and when the elephant has a baby their joy is very nearly unconfined. Protracted, bucolic, and rather sentimental scenes of elephant-related Thai life make up the first part of the film. However, when they enter their senior pachyderm in the Royal Elephant Display, traumatic events result. Chinese gangsters kidnap both Tony’s elephants and put a bullet in his dad (whether his dad dies or not depends on which version of the film you are watching) – it’s a bit unclear which upsets Tony Jaa more, but the overall upshot is that he is as cross as two sticks.

After administering the first of several spectacular collective beatings to the gangsters when he catches up with them, and then participating in a slightly sub-James Bond-ish boat chase, Tony heads off to Sydney, Australia, which is where his beloved elephants have been sent.

But there is trouble brewing in Sydney. On one level this is fairly typical martial arts movie stuff, involving police corruption and gangland internal politics, where the women are presented in almost wholly passive and sexualised terms, and all normal logic seems to have been suspended (along with most of the standard laws of physics). But in other terms it is rather different, and this is what makes Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant such a distinctively weird movie to watch. Partly because it is, on some levels, quite ludicrously primitive – some of the TV newsreaders working in Sydney very obviously don’t speak English as their first language, and the same can be said of Tony’s regular sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao, who in this film plays a rather preposterous sergeant in the Sydney PD.

In other areas it is just silly – some of this is just down to the genre rules of a martial arts film, as in the sequence where Tony is called upon to fight a capoeira expert, a wushu swordsman and a giant wrestler in a temple which somehow manages to be both flooded and on fire at the same time – the three bad guys form an orderly queue to take Tony on one at a time, which is gallant of them, and one can’t help but picture the other two hanging around outside waiting for their go while Tony sorts out the first one.  Even so, the film seems to be stretching these rules to the limit – the first really major action sequence sees Tony wandering into a drug deal, at which point the bad guy on the scene summons the dreaded in-line skaters of doom and BMX bikers of the apocalypse to sort him out. Er, what?

But mostly this film just comes across as incredibly offbeat. A repeated moment has Tony Jaa appearing in all sorts of unlikely settings, looking extremely angry, and yelling ‘Where are my elephants?’ (At one point you get to see a gang of wrestlers throw a baby elephant through a plate-glass window, which doesn’t even happen in Jason Statham movies.) Towards the end of the movie Tony Jaa is being hunted by the cops, but is able to walk around the city in broad daylight in the company of said juvenile pachyderm without anyone seeming to notice it. Part of the plot revolves around a secret Thai restaurant where people pay top dollar to eat endangered species. The main villain is a psychotic whip-cracking ladyboy gangster (played by Xing Jin). I mean, what? What?!?

Oh well – you don’t really watch this kind of film for the plot anyway (the one here bears a vague similarity to some parts of Kiss of the Dragon), but it’s nice that they have tried to give it its own very weird identity and flavour. What you’re really here for is to see Tony Jaa in full-on knees-in-the-face action, and the film does not disappoint – the fight sequences take a while to arrive, but when they do they are lengthy and frequent. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not the biggest fan of Muay Thai as a movie martial art – whenever Tony Jaa ties someone’s arm or leg in a knot, it’s accompanied by a damp crackling noise that really drives home the fact that he’s doing severe physical damage to someone. At least with Jet Li or Mr Statham kicking someone in the head you can imagine them just waking up with a bit of a headache and a resolution to live a better life, whereas anyone who gets on the wrong side of Tony is clearly looking at surgery and a long stint in rehab.

But the movie does all the standards – mob fights, expert fights, boss fights – and does them rather well. Johnny Tri Nguyen, Jon Foo and Lateef Crowder all have featured spots as guest bad guys and their fights are fun and well-choreographed. That said, at a couple of points the fights are distinctive not for the actual choreography but the direction.

The direction of this movie is quite a bit better than the script probably deserves – it’s certainly highly ambitious. The slightly-annoying genre staple of a big stunt being replayed several times from different angles barely features, while in a couple of places Pinkaew goes for insanely long takes during the fight sequences – at one point Tony Jaa runs amok through four or five floors of a building, proceeding to beat up practically every man-jack in the joint, and it appears to take place in a single shot lasting about five minutes (I suspect they may have cheated, of course). Elsewhere he isn’t afraid to go for wacky dream sequences or strange impressionistic effects, although when called upon to do the boat chase, for example, he gets a bit carried away.

In the end it all boils down to a very fit and dangerous young man taking off his shirt and beating dozens of people up, but because it’s so interestingly directed, and the stuff draped over the basic requirements of the plot is so bizarre, Tony Jaa Loves His Elephant comes across as a bit of a departure for the genre. I don’t think it will convert anyone to either martial arts films in general or Tony Jaa in particular, but it’s strangely enjoyable, and enjoyably strange.

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