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Where EAST meets the Northwest

DON’T MESS WITH MY ELEPHANT! Thai actor Tony Jaa stars as Kham in Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector, now playing at area theaters. (Photo/Mituna Thaharnhern, courtesy of The Weinstein Company)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #38 (September 19, 2006), page 1 and 13.

Return of the Thai warrior

Produced by Prachya Pinkaew and Sukanya Vongsthapat

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

In 1995, Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx gave many of us our first look at the now-famous martial arts action hero. The film itself was badly dubbed, featured a mostly Australian and Asian cast, wooden, artificial-looking sets, and a mildly engaging plot featuring Chan as the reluctant hero. Nonetheless, the movie was an enjoyable slugfest and launched the U.S. career of Jackie Chan.

Around that same time, a young fan of Chan named Panom Yeerum was studying under the mentorship of Thai action hero Panna Rittikra, learning many different martial arts forms, including Muay Thai. This traditional Thai martial arts style, visually distinct from more well-known martial arts forms, features flying elbows, knees, and shins, delivered in breathtakingly long leaps and blindingly fast midair spins that would make Kristi Yamaguchi jealous.

Within a decade, Yeerum would assemble a demo reel, change his name to Tony Jaa, and star in the groundbreaking Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003), which highlighted the Muay Thai style. The film itself, typical of low-budget martial arts movies, was thin on plot and special effects, but Jaa dazzled audiences worldwide with his speed, grace, and skill. Like Chan, he performed his own stunts and never relied on wirework or computer-enhanced special effects to accent his natural abilities. Action sequences were filmed from several angles, with the more amazing moves shown repeatedly, in rapid cuts that highlighted their drama and proved their veracity.

Now, Jaa’s much-anticipated follow-up, The Protector (2005) has been released in the United States, and it shows elements of both Ong Bak and Rumble in the Bronx, although it is superior to the former and at least equal to Chan’s breakthrough film. The Protector, too, features the Muay Thai style, with Jaa as its reluctant practitioner and hero, prodded to action by evil forces menacing traditional Thai culture. Badly dubbed, with flimsy premises and slightly less flimsy sets, its cast a mix on Australian and Asian actors, The Protector should prove to be as much of a breakthrough as Rumble was for Chan, and it is certainly a movie worth the time of any fan of Jaa or contemporary martial arts films.

Once again Jaa plays a small-town young man (Kham), only this time he has been raised to be a Jatarungkabart, an ancient caste of warriors who once protected the vulnerable legs of the war elephant bearing the king. Nowadays, with war elephants no longer used in battle, Jatarungkabart protect elephants everywhere — in this case the elephants raised by Kham’s father.

Kham bonds with a young elephant, orphaned when poachers killed its mother, and he brings his young charge to the city, along with his father and his prize bull elephant, whom he hopes will be deemed worthy to be used by the king.

Instead, poachers steal both elephants and shoot Kham’s father, giving the Muay Thai fighter his vengeful motive to pursue and punish the evil elephant smugglers. As in Ong Bak, Jaa defends the traditional honor of Thailand, and a distinctly nationalistic tone pervades the picture as the action shifts to Australia.

In Sydney, Kham is befriended by Mark, a disgraced Thai policeman played by Phetthai Wongkhamlao, the comic actor who co-starred as Humlae in Ong Bak. With Mark’s help, Kham searches for the elephants, battling a corrupt policeman and a vicious dragon lady, in the process breaking more limbs than an icy ski slope. As is the norm for these movies- cum-videogames, Jaa must face off against hordes of thugs (from rollerblading X-Games wannabes to black-suited bodyguards) before his jaw-dropping showdown against 6’11", 320-pound bodybuilder Nathan B. Jones and his cadre of giants, whose moves are drawn from the repertoire of professional wrestlers.

The film is a mishmash of martial arts clichés, but a joy nonetheless, exhibiting much improved camerawork and more plausible action than Ong Bak, where Jaa pummeled stuntmen who stood still as mannequins, and in which the premises for fights were thinner than rice paper. The focus of The Protector — as with every martial arts film — is the action, of course, and even crusty, jaded grindhouse aficionados will gasp to see spectacular Muay Thai moves for the first time. Yes, some lines are laughably bad, and there are plot holes wide enough to drive an elephant through, but The Protector manages to make Ong Bak seem like amateurish YouTube fare.

Jaa fans will not be disappointed with their hero’s return to the big screen, while everyone else will someday be talking about the first time they saw Tony Jaa, the Thai Jackie Chan. See martial arts history in the making, the kind that will keep you munching your popcorn along with the crunch of shattering fibulas and the spinning, speedy, spectacular moves of the Muay Thai fighting style.