Chok Dee (2005) is loosely based on the life of its star and former kickboxing champ, French fighter Dida Diafat. When I say it plays loose with the details, I mean in a way very common with entertainment. True life is usually a bit more boring, so sometimes you have to play with the facts when delivering a breezy commercial film.
Dida was a teenage street thug who took up kickboxing, trained in Thailand, and went on to become a successful kickboxing champ. Did he learn kickboxing while in prison from a wise old con who was in jail after being framed by a Thai criminal organization? No. Did he travel to Thailand alone, penniless, and persistently hang out in front of a kickboxing school that didn't want him and not give up until they admitted him? No (I found an old online interview where he says he first traveled to Thailand with some kickboxing gym buddies). Did he engage in underground fights to bail out his prison buddy and fall in love with a drop dead gorgeous half-French/half-Thai girl? Nah, but it makes for a decent story in your kickboxing flick.
While most of the story is surely fabricated for entertainment value, it is surprisingly straightforward and less exploitative than one might expect from a martial arts film. This is certain no Golan-Globus or Cannon Films production and you'll find far fewer liberties and salacious bits than in, for instance, the Frank Dux's inspired Bloodsport. Probably because Dida and many of the Thai actors are first-timers or novices, the story is kept very simple, and there isn't a whole lot of complexity to how the story unfolds. Typical athletics film- guy finds sport, trains in sport, overcomes obstacles, and becomes a champ. It is a film that is very montage heavy, which in the end, makes a lot of sense considering the films two big environments are prison and a French mans fish out of water story, both are situations where jawing isn't a huge priority, or in the latter case even possible.
A basic breakdown is really all you need. Dida plays Rayane, a cornrowed thug who gets busted while stealing a car stereo. He's walks around huffing and puffing like a badass until he is put in a cell with an older con, Jean (Bernard Giraudeau), who is an ex-kickboxer. So, after some scrappy do-it-yourself training (and requisite Rockystyle montage), Monsieur Miyagi finds that Rayane is fairly adept at fighting and Rayane now has something other than petty crime to follow as a legit path in life. Upon his release, Rayane hops on a plane to Thailand and begs for training at the school that once opened its arms to Jean. Rayane also finds Jean's long lost daughter, Kim (Florence Vanida F.), who has never seen or met Jean due to his imprisonment. Rayane slowly crawls from toilet scrubber to legit fighter and earns the respect of the Thai coaches and fellow students. But, Rayane finds his emerging career in jeopardy when a freshly released Jean returns to Thailand and is set-up by the underworld figures that previoouisly had him imprisoned.
Director Xavier Durringer unfortunately has a lot working against him. As a lead, Dida has some presence as long as he is required to smolder. Anything beyond a intense focused stare and Dida falls apart. A bit of teeter-totter balance is made by casting veteran French actor Bernard Giraudeau, whose idea of injecting life into the cliched lines is to add tremendous mug and bluster to every word he spits. So, on one hand, you've got novice usually looking like a robot, in the other, an actor who clearly knows he's better than the material, so he Pacino's every other word.
I'll admit that I am pretty biased when it comes to modern European-produced martial arts films. As a martial film junkie, in the past decade plus, I haven't seen that many Euro martial arts films (American ones either) that really stunned me. Unless the producers/director hire an Asian fight choreographer, I go in ready for a letdown. The same goes for Chok Dee, which has fight scenes that are few and far between and unfortunately never deliver anything as jaw-dropping or memorable as a Tony Jaa flying elbow. The action direction is muddled and doesn't give you a good sense of the physicality or strategy behind kickboxing. Instead, the fighting becomes a, muddled, tightly framed assemblage of thudding fists and feet. It does a disservice to the athletics of the fighting system and the story because it isn't specific enough to give an idea of what made Dida special.
The DVD: Tai Seng.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Decent image. The production isn't top notch, but the photography certainly satisfies and never comes off as too cheap. Sharpness and contrast levels are fine. The print appears very crisp and free of any damage or dirt. The contrast is a bit weak and this is especially evident in night scenes which come across as too grayed. Technically the transfer is not perfect. There is some slight noise and minor ghosting.
Sound: Original language (French, English, and Thai) 5.1 Surround, or Cantonese, Mandarin, or English 5.1 Surround dubs. Optional English or Chinese subtitles. Workmanlike soundtrack. Not a particularly expressive mix, but it gets the job done. Subtitles were excellent and free of any glaring grammatical errors.
Extras: Tai Seng release trailers.- Interviews: Dida (22:36). Very nice and informative. Gives you a better bio than the movie. Dida spends the bulk of the interivew discussing his kickboxing career. Producer Vera Belmont (7:22), now this was just strange. Belmont looks like somebodies mother, hardly the image one would associate with a producer of a b-grade kickboxing drama. She goes over the basic details of how she became attracted to the project.
Conclusion: The DVD is okay, but the film could use some Bolo Yeung. A kickboxing flick with little kickboxing and a lot of athletic film, little guy rises to the top cliches.