Tony Jaa is one of the best martial artists working today. His work in Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior put him on the international radar, but it wasn’t until The Protector that he really got to show the world how advanced he was in his martial arts. Today, I’ll be looking at the original Protector from 2005 and The Protector 2 that came years later in 2013. Both of these films have their strengths and weaknesses, but it’s not worth arguing over Jaa’s level of skill. In my opinion, he’s at the head of the game, but can his movies always live up to that level of skill?
Let’s dive right in to the 2005 original.
As a child, Kham learned about the honor and importance of looking after and protecting the King of Thailand’s war elephant. Now, as an adult, Kham (Tony Jaa) has a young elephant of his own to look after along with the one he and his father have been protecting for years. When a group of gangsters and poachers steal Kham’s two elephants and attack his father, Kham goes on a mission to Sydney, Australia to avenge his father and return to Thailand with his elephants. What he finds in Sydney is a lot more resistance than he thought. With the aid of a bumbling police officer, Sgt. Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao), Kham fights his way through the criminal underworld and finds a line of betrayal that all leads back to the sinister Madame Rose (Xing Jin).
There’s a lot that can be said about The Protector or Tom-Yum-Goong, as it was originally called in Thailand. Let’s look at the story first. At it’s core it tells an honorable tale of the culture of Thailand and the atrocious things that humans can do to others and to other creatures that inhabit this planet with us. The themes run deep and the aspects of betrayal that Madame Rose executes are all really cool too. What isn’t great is how the story is told. There are quite a few characters and scenes that only serve to deviate the plot from its main course and add some complexity to it that isn’t really needed. The idea of Kham facing off against a criminal organization is cool enough. One character in particular hides Kham for a scene and comes back to sort of act as a deus ex machina. Some of the scenes also feel like they are out of order at times and some of the editing is just downright confusing. If you find yourself scratching your head trying to follow the plot, don’t worry. I was doing the same thing myself.
If you watch the scene right above this, you’ll see why the convoluted plot of this movie isn’t enough to completely bring it down. The action and stunt work in this movie is absolutely out of this world. Like Jaa’s previous film, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, a lot of the draw this movie had was to see Jaa perform gravity defying stunts and action without any use of CGI or wires. Add Prachya Pinkaew’s style that is sure to include every bit of action in a scene, and you have a match made in martial arts heave. This movie can get down right brutal and Tony Jaa is at the center of it all, having choreographed the stunts and action set pieces himself. The main reason people want to watch a martial arts film is for the martial arts and this one delivers in spades. It’s just often not for the faint of heart.
In the end, The Protector is disappointing in the area of story and narrative structure, but more than makes up for it with the bone crunching action and fight sequences. These scenes are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and is some of the best martial arts you can find. It’s worth it to plow through the editing however you can to enjoy the movie’s themes and action.
Final Grade: B
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but after spending some years in a Buddhist monastery, Tony Jaa returned to acting to film the 2013 film The Protector 2. Unfortunately, it may not have been the come back that was anticipated.
After the events of the first film, Kham has returned to Thailand and continues to raise and protect his elephant. He thinks nothing of it when a mysterious buyer comes to purchase the elephant, and he respectfully declines his offer. Soon after that, Kham returns home from the market to find his elephant once again missing and begins a one man war against the criminal underworld in Thailand. Along the way, he is reunited with Sgt. Mark, now working for Interpol. As Kham searches for his elephant and takes down one henchman after another and Mark begins investigating a possible political assassination, it becomes clear that the kidnapping of Kham’s elephant and the assassination are somehow linked by a criminal mastermind known as L.C. (RZA).
What made the original Protector really stand out was how organic and real the action was while also being filmed surprisingly beautifully at certain moments. All of that, for the most part, is replaced by a much more synthetic kind of film making. There’s lots of green screen and CGI whereas the first film didn’t rely on that at all. This made The Protector 2 feel like a real disappointment. Prachya Pinkaew returns to the director’s chair so there’s a lot of well filmed action sequences, but in his attempt to make it even bigger than the first movie, he also makes it look less exciting. One scene in particular which is a fight scene on a rooftop featuring motorcycles should have been awesome. Instead it looked like one CGI stunt after another. There’s a lot of moments in this movie that feel like that and I know both Pinkaew and Jaa are much better than that. The action sequences could have been enhanced without making the whole thing often look absurd.
This isn’t to say that Tony Jaa slacks off at all and doesn’t deliver some really impressive fight sequences, and some of the CGI does work to the movie’s favor. It’s just not at all what I wanted from the movie. I will also say that the story is told a lot better than the first film. There’s no sloppy edits that make you wonder what the film makers were thinking, and there’s really only a few scenes that could have been cut out instead of a whole slew of them. There’s also a good supporting cast backing up Jaa. RZA is obviously having the time of his life playing the villainous L.C. and Marrese Crump and Rhatha Phongam bring a lot of energy to their roles as well. Petchtai Wongkamlao is also a welcome return as Sgt. Mark.
All in all, The Protector 2 isn’t necessarily a bad movie but it shies away from what made the original film so memorable. Gone are the completely organic, wireless fights. The are instead replaced by CGI heavy set pieces that could have seriously been tweaked or toned down. While it doesn’t live up to the talents on display, it’s worthy of a simple distraction that can kill some time.
Final Grade: C
So there’s my review of the Protector movies. The first one is a fantastic example of how to make a beautifully shot martial arts film. It would have been perfect had the story been cleaned up. While the second film is completely acceptable, you’d be best off sticking with the first to really see what Tony Jaa is capable of.