Fans of martial arts movies, especially of the Thai persuasion, may already be familiar with Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda. She was the diminutive star of Chocolate, a 2008 venture from Prachya Pinkaew and Panna Ritikrai, the men responsible for Tony Jaa's Ong-bak and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector). Chocolate definitively introduced Jeeja as an action star worth watching out for. She was agile, fearless and most importantly, she could act. That's saying something, considering she played mute for most of that film, using only her expressive face to communicate the turmoil within. Rashane Limtrakul's Raging Phoenix attempts to build upon her talents by giving her a more emotional role to play with. While Jeeja is up to the task, the film fails on any level other than being another action showreel for Muay Thai starved audiences.
Deu (Jeeja) is a tomboy with some major guy problems. When she's not drumming in a rock band or attacking boys who are cheating on her, she's off in a field missing her deceased father. As if her life isn't angsty enough, she gets kicked out of her band leaving her with no alternative but to get sloppy drunk. In her inebriated state, she almost gets kidnapped by a bunch of goons. I say almost because she gets saved in the nick of time by an athletic stranger named Sanim (Kazu Patrick Tang). Sanim fights off Deu's attackers who make their approach on Skyrunners (weird curved jumping stilts). After escaping with Deu, Sanim introduces her to the rest of his gang including Pig Shit (Nui Sandang) and Dog Shit (Sompong Leartvimolkasame). Clearly their parents hated them.
Deu quickly immerses herself in the mission taken on by Sanim and the Shit Bros. (what else do you want me to call them?). They have been actively fighting gangs of kidnappers who have been abducting, raping and killing women across Thailand. At their disposal are their hands and feet which they wield in a fighting style that combines aspects of Muay Thai, breakdancing and drunken boxing. While ShittleDee and ShittleDum teach Deu how to hold her liquor, Sanim teaches her how to fight. After that she and the guys are ready to take on the central cabal of kidnappers, the Jaguar gang. The Jaguars have the market cornered on a special brand of evil. They don't just kidnap women and kill them. No, that would be too easy. They kidnap special women who secrete certain pheromones when they cry tears of sadness. They, then turn around and sell these pheromonal tears as an exclusive and pricey perfume. I would love to see the market research they conducted before coming up with their product line.
If it hasn't become abundantly clear by now, Raging Phoenix is raging nuts. It takes the very real threat of abduction and assault and turns it into a joke. There are actually multiple scenes where people look away for exactly one second only to turn back and find that the person they were talking to has been kidnapped. Taken alongside the scent thieving Jaguar gang, the film could be positioned as a live-action cartoon if it weren't for the deadly serious characterization of the protagonists. Since his fiancée was kidnapped on their wedding day, Sanim only wears two expressions: glum and morose. The Fellowship of the Shit is more bipolar. They are either drunk and depressed or drunk and irrationally exuberant. When Deu isn't missing her dad, she is pining for Sanim even though he will never reciprocate her feelings. Since we aren't dealing with an especially fun bunch of characters, it's hard to go with the flow when the film piles on the quirk.
Here I am going on about the incoherent and atonal storyline when all you want to know is if knees make contact with skulls at an alarming pace or not. The action is actually pretty well-staged when we get to it. Unfortunately it isn't properly spread out over the course of the film. Other than Sanim's early skirmish and Deu's training sequences, the bulk of the action gets relegated to the final half hour of the film. It's a bit of a slog getting to that point but once the Jaguar lair is infiltrated, the movie works overtime to earn some of your love. We get Sanim and Deu fighting in tandem against the Jaguar boss. We get J-Shitt and the Shit-uation (no quicker way to date one's writing than to include Jersey Shore references) facing off against lethal minions. If you've been waiting for Jeeja to strut her stuff, your itch will be scratched as well. After the rest of her friends have been beaten down, she takes on the entire villainous gang all by her lonesome. What follows is an eye-popping display of a variety of styles executed in quick succession to inflict maximum damage.
Raging Phoenix hardly ever makes any sense during its protracted 114 minute running time. Director Limtrakul doesn't seem to know what to do with his cast when they aren't fighting so he just lets them mope. Jeeja and Tang are both talented performers but they deserve better showcases than this. The action choreographed by Panna Ritikrai and Weerapon Phumatfon lets them intermittently shine but the rest of the production just mires them in mediocrity.
The movie was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The image supported the film's vibrant color scheme (reds and earth tones) although whites were occasionally blown out. It also communicated the heightened sense of style with adequate clarity. A few instances of shimmer were noted along with some truly awful CG during the climax.
The audio was presented in English and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. English and Spanish subtitles were also available. I chose to view the feature with the original Thai language track and English subtitles. The audio mix was fairly lively as it provided ample support during the punishing action sequences. It even made its presence felt at other times with the percussive backing track.
The meat of the extras consists of 2 featurettes that are each roughly 10 minutes long. The first one is dedicated to The Making of Raging Phoenix. This piece features interviews with the director and entire principal cast. We get to hear about the interplay of love and action as a theme within the film. The cast and crew lavish praise on each other with special attention paid to the talents of Jeeja and Tang. This segues perfectly into the second featurette which goes Behind the Scenes of Raging Phoenix. Although I normally find B-Roll footage to be less than thrilling, in this case I'll make an exception. We get to peek in on the main performers as they train and rehearse for some of the action set pieces within the movie. While it's pretty amazing watching them execute their moves in the film, the practice sessions are equally impressive due to their rawness. The release closes things out with an International Trailer for the film that actually lists "Real Acting" as a major selling point.
Jeeja Yanin had a stunning debut with Prachya Pinkaew's Chocolate. While she continues to impress with her physicality and range as a performer, Raging Phoenix is a less than stellar vehicle for her talents. Director Rashane Limtrakul is so focused on melding romantic melodrama with action beats that he forgets to make a coherent film in the process. The nonsensical plot lets the protagonists meander until their final showdown with the cartoonishly over-the-top villains. By the time the climax launches into action overdrive, it is too much too late. Those unfamiliar with Jeeja will be better served by checking out her debut film. If you already know what she is capable of, just skip forward to the bone-crunching climax and then wait for her next movie. Rent It.