When we last saw Kham (Tony Jaa), he had been successfully reunited with his beloved "brother" -- a baby elephant named Khon. When the elephant was kidnapped, Kham went on a rampage through Sydney in a quest to get it back, aided reluctantly by police officer Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao). As The Protector 2 begins, things haven't changed -- a gangster appears in Kham's village and makes an open-ended offer to buy the elephant. When Kham refuses, the elephant once again disappears, and Kham heads into the city (Thailand, this time), intending to get his animal back. Unfortunately, when he arrives at the gangster's palatial estate, he finds someone else has already killed him, and all evidence now points to Kham as the culprit. Reteaming once again with Mark, Kham has to track down the true culprit, LC (The RZA), while avoiding the gangster's furious nieces Ping Ping (JeeJa Yanin) and Sue Sue (Theerada Kittisiriprasert), as well as LC's deadly henchman, No. 2 (Marrese Crump).
Boy, how the mighty have fallen. In 2003, Ong-Bak provided a full-throttle blast of physical prowess, showcasing a man who could flip and fly with grace, right before bringing an elbow down into the top of somebody's skull. The Protector offered a weaker story (both Ong-Bak and The Protector follow the same "retrieve X" formula, but Jaa's character is far more whiny about "my elephant"), but upped the ante in bone-cracking, neck-snapping action, including a four-minute long-take of Jaa running up a circular ramp, pummeling every guy who got in his way. However, the pressure of stardom that followed the one-two punch of those films proved too much for Jaa so early in his career, and the production of Ong-Bak 2 and 3 were hamstrung by his increasingly erratic ways. Both films bombed at the Thai box office and strained his relationship with production company Sahamongkol. With one picture left on his contract, Sahamongkol poured boatloads into The Protector 2, meant to restore Jaa's good standing at the box office...and it's basically embarrassing.
Anyone who remembers seeing Jaa in Ong-Bak will be stunned by what's on display in the film's first big fight scene. Introduced as a guy who didn't have to rely on wires, doubles, and greenscreen, The Protector starts to look like a film that was made almost entirely without him, as if his actual participation in the production were some Robert Rodriguez-style inserts over digital backdrops. The movie reteams Jaa with veteran action director Prachya Pinkaew and the late stunt coordinator Panna Rittikrai, a reassembling of the key players behind Ong-Bak. On paper, maybe the ideas here sounded like a non-stop barrage of incredible moments, but the sight of a two-dimensional cut-out cartoon character version of the film's live-action star crawling along a billboard -- a ridiculously simplistic stunt considering the kinds of things he's done before -- or leaping past an oncoming bullet train is not just disappointing, it's downright depressing. As the film goes on, the visual trickery decreases, but suspicious editing choices remain overwhelming, with Jaa's face only visible in cramped close-ups.
The Protector 2 was shot in 3D to boost the film's box office returns. The potential to do great things with inventive camerawork is high, but there's not much evidence of flourish in this 2D presentation. Mostly, the addition of CG debris flying past the camera or the ability to create layers using the greenscreen work is all Pinkaew can muster. The script is also really anemic and repetitive (I guess it never got back to Thailand that the elephant thing was ridiculous), a clothesline of a clothesline. The film never really commits to Kham looking for Khon, Kham trying to clear his name, or Kham being blackmailed by LC into doing some dirty deeds. Characters are introduced for no reason so they can become important later. Well, some of them, anyway; the beautiful No. 20 (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), one of LC's fighters, never really seems to have any purpose in the story. The inclusion of Chocolate star Jeeja Yanin is a disappointment as well. On the heels of that film, this could've been the Thai version of Jackie Chan and Jet Li teaming up, but the two stars spend most of their time fighting separately, and when they do appear in the same scene, the balance of attention shifts heavily in favor of Jaa.
In the last 20 minutes, The Protector 2 starts to at least go for the gusto, which does a little to wash away the sour taste of the film's digital trickery. There are times when the film begins to look like a parody of itself, taking over-the-top action over the top and back again, but there's also a sense that exaggerated B-movie silliness isn't what Pinkaew, Jaa, and Rittikrai intended for the film, nor does it seem like a good use of Jaa's talents. There were reports that Sahamongkol was being as tough on Jaa as Jaa was mercurial, refusing to allow the actor to talk to Hollywood producers about starring in a movie without their approval. It took The Protector 2 an extra year to reach theaters, and from what little Thai box office information is available online, it doesn't seem to have earned back much of its massive (for the Thai film industry) $12 million budget. It's no surprise either: it's nothing but visible seams.
The Protector 2 comes with exaggerated "digital Struzan" cover artwork depicting all the characters in a little photo collage, with a big bold title above Jaa's head in Transporter font. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case with no insert, and the entire package slides into an embossed, glossy foil slipcover with the same images.
The Video and Audio
From a technical standpoint, The Protector 2 is top-notch. Although the film's ugly digital effects look like ugly digital effects, there's nothing wrong with the 2.39:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer; that's the way the image is meant to look. Fine detail is excellent, black levels appear accurate, color is vibrant, and I did not notice any banding or artifacting. The accompanying DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Thai language track is also phenomenal, with every rev of a motorcycle engine or thunderous slow-motion kick replicated in bassy, aurally pleasing detail. English subtitles and captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are both available, as well as an English dub is also offered in DTS-HD 5.1, and Spanish subtitles.
Four behind-the-scenes featurettes -- "Cast and Characters", "Speaking With the Director", "Action & Stunts", and "Working in 3D" -- are included, with a "Play All" option (22:28, SD). These are clip-heavy, EPK-style featurettes that are very complimentary and gloss over the film's exceptionally troubled production. Arguably the most interesting thing is that The RZA mentions he scored a number of movies, and doesn't mention that one of them was Ong-Bak. Worst of all is the "Action and Stunts" featurette, which actually shows before-and-after comparisons of the composited shots, practically emphasizing how poor the film's effects work is. This is followed by the perfunctory "axsTV: A Look at The Protector 2" (2:55), which is basically just a commercial with some interviews cut in.
Trailers for Journey to the West, Filth, Stage Fright, Ong-Bak 3, a promo for the social network "Chideo", and another for axsTV play before the main menu. Two original theatrical trailers for The Protector 2 are also included.
For many, the merits of Jaa's first Protector are up for debate, given its one-note MacGuffin. Those arguments may be thoroughly silenced by The Protector 2, which is not painful to watch, but more embarrassing. Although fault is hard to pin down between Jaa and the producers, the piss-poor quality of the final product is not up for debate -- neither walks away from this mess looking good. Skip it.
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