I was thrilled to learn that Magnolia Home Entertainment was slated to release four new Blu-rays featuring Thai action star Tony Jaa—The Protector 2 (2013) and a collected re-release of The Ong Bak Trilogy—on a single day (July 29th, 2014 o be exact). After all, Tony Jaa is one of my favorite martial artists currently working in cinema. And yet, if I’m being totally honest with you here, until today I only really liked one Tony Jaa movie I had seen: Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003).
Ong Bak is the film that put Jaa on everybody’s radar, though some latecomers may have been introduced to him a couple years later in The Protector (2005) instead. Ong Bak is, simply put, amazing. With the most threadbare of plots, Ong Bak throws Tony Jaa out into the world to do what he does best: elbow people in the head, deliver punishing flying knees to the chest, and parkour the hell out of some urban environments. It finds perfection in its utter simplicity. Basically some bad guys steal a holy relic from the small, country town that Jaa’s character lives in and he has to travel to the big city to get it back. Jaw-dropping fight scenes ensue. Perfection.
Rather than following the further adventures of Ong Bak’s hero, Ting, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (2008) and Ong Bak 3: The Final Battle (2010) are historical, fantasy epics that are really sequels in name only. That in itself wouldn’t be an issue if they were able to replicate the beautiful simplicity of their predecessor. Instead, the Ong Bak sequels proved to be insufferably dull and convoluted to such an extent that I found myself disinterested in even the most impressive action sequences therein when watched in context of the narrative. The third Ong Bak in particular is a horribly disappointing slog. Jaa’s character spends half the movie unconscious and, after the opening fight sequence, doesn’t take part in a single fight until an hour and twenty minutes into the movie!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying movies have to have fighting them, but Tony Jaa movies sure as hell do. That’s what we watch them for. And Tony Jaa movies work best when the fight scenes are frantic and frequent and the narrative is simple. The Protector gets that right, or at least half right depending on which cut of the film you’re watching. The action set pieces are numerous and lengthy, and the plot is incredibly simple: a guy’s elephant is stolen by some kind of criminal organization and so he punches everybody in front of him until he gets it back. The unfortunate thing is, if you watch the lengthier international cut of the film (which is what I did, being the sort who prefers to watch the more complete version of a picture), the whole elephant-kidnappping syndicate thing becomes nonsensically complex and bogs the film down immensely. Now, admittedly I’ve returned to The Protector a couple times since, mostly for the unbelievable, four-minute fight scene that follows Jaa up a spiral staircase and into a number of rooms full of baddies, all in a single take. Unfortunately, that initial experience of watching the international cut of the film still leaves me with lukewarm feelings about the picture.
The Protector 2, which made its North American home video debut just last week, gets that Tony Jaa formula right. It’s wall-to-wall elbows and knees, draped over a skeleton plot that simply finds Kham’s (Jaa) elephant stolen again. Sure, there are other things happening. An eccentric mob boss with a martial arts obsession (played by Wu-Tang Clan founder, RZA) attempts to recruit Kham into his organization and then plots to use Kham’s elephant to assassinate the president of a newly-formed country. Another character loses his job because of his association with Kham and at the same time, two young, female martial artists determine to kill Kham after they mistakenly assume he killed their uncle. But the filmmakers wisely downplay all of these additional plot points and never allow them to overwhelm the central narrative thrust of Kham’s quest to save his elephant.
Yep, it’s every bit as action-packed as Ong Bak and almost as simple, and indeed boasts some unforgettable action set pieces. Among the most impressive of these are a rooftop fight between Kham and a biker gang, and a fight between Kham and RZA’s No. 2 fighter on train tracks. In that particular scene, Kham and No. 2’s wet shoes cause them to throw electricity at one another as they trade blows in what seems to me a clear, though perhaps unintentional, throwback to Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (1985).
The only thing that really prevents The Protector 2 from matching the success of Ong Bak with regard to that perfect balance of action and narrative simplicity is the extensive use of CG throughout. As the first ever 3D Thai actioner, the film is marred by an over-reliance on CG and green-screening that took me out of the film entirely more often than not. This is not to say I think the stunts could have been pulled off practically without the use of CG, or that the film might have been as thoroughly exciting without them. Were I to say such things I would be wrong. The effects simply are not believable, particularly the effect used to make it appear as though Kham is fighting two men in a room on fire. Still, The Protector 2 stands as the second greatest Tony Jaa film I’ve seen to date, behind only the original Ong Bak.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I would wholeheartedly recommend a purchase of The Protector 2, which you can pick up on DVD or Blu-ray from Magnolia, as well as Ong Bak. But what about Magnolia’s Ong Bak Trilogy release? In spite of my aforementioned grievances with the Ong Bak sequels, I actually like to keep them around and revisit the fight scenes from time to time. The films themselves may not be good… like at all, but the truth is, I’m not always in the mood for a Bergman film or some such. Greatness isn’t always a prerequisite when I’m, choosing a film. Sure, I often find myself wanting to engage with actual art. But I’ve known plenty of days when I’d rather see Tony Jaa deliver a flying backflip kick into a guy’s head off the face of an elephant than sit through a Fanny and Alexander.