2003's "Ong-Bak" gave birth to the Muay Thai action superstar Tony Jaa, and the martial arts genre was forever changed. Jaa is a human bullet, preferring authenticity to his rumblings, freshening up the action world to such a degree, I'm not sure how we made it this far without him. "Ong-Bak" was crudely crafted and borderline silly, but it made a dynamic impression. "The Protector" (known worldwide as "Tom Yum Goong") solidifies Jaa as a force to be reckoned with.
Brutality is the name of the game in "Protector," with Jaa and his director Prachya Pinkaew turning up the intensity of their fight choreography so much, it makes "Ong-Bak" look like a game of touch football. Jaa and his fight team are meticulous in their movement, while preserving the essential roughness of the punches and kicks. This is hardly featherweight Jackie Chan maneuvering or "Matrix" wire-work perfection; this is violence with a capital "OW!" Bodies are twisted, slapped, broken, thrown, and smashed with a kinetic sincerity that will make you duck and weave in your theater seat.
Introducing Jaa's elephant-influenced variation on his Muay Thai training, the sheer poundings in the "Protector" are some of the most stunning I've seen in recent years, but Jaa and Pinkaew try to reach a little further for "The Protector." The centerpiece of the film is bravura five-minute single shot following Kham as he fights his way to the top floor of a heavily populated criminal hideout. The sequence is astounding not only in its level of detail and woozy punch drunk delight, but also as a moment of virtuoso technical filmmaking. Jaa doesn't stop for a breath as he rolls up floor after floor, snapping and tossing aside whatever poor bastard dares cross his path, tenaciously maintaining a pace that has to be the result of months of intricate planning and precise execution. Heavens, it worth the price of admission just to see this little sliver of the picture.
What keeps "Protector" from slipping into familiar, monotone action film territory is its animal loving soul. While the story can soar into outer space from time to time (as does the coherency), the heart of the film lies with those dear elephants, which is quite unique in a genre where most good guys waltz into battle to win the heart of a women or to protect childhood friends. Jaa fights for his pachyderm pals because of the companionship and loyalty they've shown him, swinging open a juicy and highly legitimate audience participation door to cheer him along as he kicks the living bejesus out of the wicked poachers and assorted thugs who challenge him on foot, rollerblade, or motor vehicle. It's been a long time since I was invested this heavily in cinematic revenge instead of just watching it colorfully, but passively, thunder past my eyes.
For the U.S. release, "The Protector" has found its way into the hands of the Weinstein Company: the most feared import butchers of them all. Sadly, the film has been whittled down from an international running time of 110 minutes to just 85, losing a vital sense of spirituality to the elephant symbolism of the film, along with simple and important character development for some of the supporting players. It's not an editing bloodbath like the one found on another Weinstein debacle, "Shaolin Soccer," but it does unnecessarily neuter a unique and powerful motion picture.
"The Protector" may be an imperfect storytelling machine (made even worse by the American edit), and I'm a little dismayed that Pinkaew has discovered the joys of staging fireball stunts; however, regardless of its deficiencies, "The Protector" is a jaw-dropping, exhilarating action war cry rarely offered to American audiences anymore, and presents Tony Jaa as a timeless martial art icon to rival Bruce Lee.