While the usual marriage of elements always make for a great film, in action filmdom you can get a passing grade so long as you deliver one crucial element. Logic can be thrown out the window. Settings don't have to be stellar. Characters can be cardboard and the accompanying acting stiff. Plots can be threadbare. You just need that one hinge: action delivered at a decent, thrilling, and coherent clip.
For instance, in the 2009 Thai film Fireball, it doesn't matter that our lead hero Tai takes the place of his twin brother Tan (Preeti Barameeanant) and no one is the wiser, despite logic that assumes the twins would have undergone extensive tattooing in order to have the exact same tattoos. That doesn't matter, so long as he kicks some ass.
One shouldn't care that the sport of Fireball itself, a five on five underground basketball game where the winner is the team to score the first goal or have the last man left conscious or alive, doesn't seem to have any rules or referees, yet the men still occasionally take the time to dribble the basketball. What? It is also never adequately explained why the rival teams seem to always get weapons, yet our underdog hero group does not. So long as the men are engaged in some balletic brutalism, we don't care and it doesn't seem pointlessly silly. (Also worth noting, there is no actual fire ball in fireball.)
Obligatory love interest? Fine, just so long as it doesn't take up too much time between the kicks, punches, bruises, and blood-spurting.
The plotting and character dynamics of Fireball are unfussy and wonderfully economical. Within the first 30 seconds of the film, we are shown Tai being released from jail and his discovery that his twin brother Tan is in the hospital. Quickly he's out on the streets impersonating his brother to find out what caused Tan to come home with bruises and eventually be beaten into a coma. Likewise, the premise of the game itself is explained in one quick stroke thanks to the God of Exposition. Tai (as Tan) is inducted into the world of fireball, a game played by rival mobsters betting on their personal teams, raising the stakes and brutality of the game as teams progress through tournaments. Tai is part of a ragtag team put together by a low level gangster. The crew consists of the usual types, the golden boy, the old warhorse, the slight guy/brain, and the shady guy, all with their own motivations to fight for a living. In order to get to the team who wounded his brother and, as a bonus, fight for cash to pay for an operation to save Tan, naturally, Tai and his team must make it to the end.
I haven't seen an action film in quite some time with an overall package, routine as it may be, that was presented with such verve. It has all the makings of a great kickass film. Interesting and unique action premise. Solid supporting cast archetypes. A hero out for revenge. The usual double crosses, potential tragedies, and sticky relationships. A plot that movies smoothly and action that comes frequently while always providing forward momentum towards that big final showdown.
But, the action stinks.
It isn't the performers. It isn't the choreography. The direction is atrocious. It ruins the action and ruins the film.
Director Thanakorn Pongsuwan films the action scenes with a mind-boggling mix of several bad style choices that all work to make the scenes not only near incomprehensible but also, for me, headache inducing. Scenes are framed tight and often offcenter, the cutting is quick, and, if it wasn't enough that the camera shakes, it also often shakes-and-zooms. The shaky cam aesthetic doesn't bother me. I prefer films with longer takes and wide framing, but I rarely begrudge films that choose the rawer shooting style.
While a poor mans parkour training scene is fun due to the movement, the other action scenes are locked into the standard car park, warehouse, boatyard etc and even in this flat setting Pongsuwan directs in a way that you lose all sense of scale and geography. Its just a blur of spinning, fists, and feet often losing transition between who is fighting who, much less simple things like one punch to another. There is no other way to say it. The action appears to be really mean and solidly performed, but the direction is overly messy and sinks all the enjoyment and thrills.
The DVD: Lionsgate.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is clean but rough. By that I mean, the image is intentionally gritty with washed out colors, heavy grain, and the the like. Accurate color and fine details were clearly not intended and pic leans towards bleaker warm tones and twilight urban gutter depth. Technically, the image is solid except for some slight compression issues that lead to some quibbles like edge enhancement and a pic that is a tad noisier than they no doubt intended.
Two 5.1 Surround audio options include original Thai language or an English dub. English and Spanish subs. Audio is fine. I wasn't overly impressed with the mixing dynamics, mainly due to the fx work coming across as a tad underwhelming. The dub has the dialogue mixed a tad too high for my liking. On that end, keen viewers will be upset to find that the subtitle translation isn't true. Rather than aim for accuracy, they took the shortcut and just used the dub script for the English translation.
Aside from the usual trailer and Lionsgate promos, the only extra is a Making Of Featurette (11:44).
I cannot in good conscience recommend a film that gave me a headache. Maybe that first viewing was just a combo of the film and a change in the barometric pressure, so I went back and watched some of the action stand alone and still found the direction annoying and a detriment to the scenes. Fireball is a winner with all the elements that action fans tend to forgive, but the direction of the Fight Club-meets-White Men Cant Jump-meets breakneck Thai fight scenes is so confusing and irritating, I have to say skip it. Brave or curious fans may want to check it out as a rental, but I feel that is being generous.