Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Protector

Posted By on Wed, Sep 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM

There's a certain Zen-like quality to The Protector, the follow-up to Tony Jaa's breakout performance in the 2003 low-budget martial arts movie Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. In the sequel's penultimate scene, Jaa takes on and conquers a seemingly endless crush of attackers, shattering their arms and legs with such numbing precision that one can almost see Jaa straining to think of novel new ways to inflict agony. As his last bad guy crumples to the floor, writhing in pain, he stands triumphantly amid at least 40 black-suited victims, like some triage room from The Matrix Reloaded.

The amplified echo of bones crunching will ring in your ears long after the painfully disjointed plot of this movie has faded. Jaa's form of combat is called Muay Thai, but you may need a few mai tais to cope with the relentless bombardment of violence.

Every generation seems to have its pre-eminent martial arts film icons, and the chisel-cheeked Jaa certainly appears poised to become the heir apparent to Jet Li and Jackie Chan. (In one brief cameo, Chan bumps shoulders with Jaa in an airport concourse and stares him down, as if officially passing the torch.) Jaa's lithe moves and acrobatic fighting style are nothing short of spectacular. But as Li and Chan learned all too well, being a one-man wrecking crew only works so long in a film; it really helps to have a storyline.

The Protector was originally titled Tom Yum Goong (can't you see that name on American marquees?), and in some corners it's even known as Ong-Bak 2, which does the original a terrible disservice. Ong-Bak inspired noted martial arts devotee Quentin Tarantino to persuade mogul Harvey Weinstein to distribute both movies domestically through The Weinstein Company. But The Protector — with its grainy texture, choppy scenes and intermittently dubbed dialogue sprinkled between subtitles — goes down fighting by comparison.

And then, of course, there are the elephants.

What sheep were to Brokeback Mountain, pachyderms are to The Protector: They're everywhere. If you're not watching Jaa handing some poor schmuck back his elbow, you're staring up at a big-ass elephant. Admittedly, this is a story element you probably haven't seen outside a Tarzan movie. In typical martial-arts leading man scripting, Jaa plays Kham, a humble young man from a small village who's the latest in a noble lineage of warriors sworn to protect the king's royal fighting elephants. (No, this really is the premise.) When a ruthless Asian gang steals the family's prized elephants for their supposed mystical powers, killing Kham's father in the process, he travels from Thailand to Australia to get his beasts back. (How he manages the airfare to Sydney remains a mystery.)

Once the movie goes Down Under, it becomes a mishmash blur of crooked cops, botched drug deals, cocky hoodlums, prostitution, government corruption and a dragon lady crime boss — all layered over a hip-hop soundtrack. Meanwhile, continuing his search for his elephants, our hero is battling in speedboats and burning temples, and squaring off against bikers, 'bladers, security guards and some of the largest human beings captured on film, including one brother with the word "PRAY" carved into his chest who looks like a kung-fu version of Savion Glover.

With its R rating and Tarantino stamp of approval, The Protector is likely to be a powerful draw for that young, testosterone-spiked male audience that relishes watching long sequences of booty being kicked. We all should be thankful it's not elephant booty; that might have caused this pointless movie to last much longer.

Jim McFarlin writes about movies for Metro Times.. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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