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Just over a decade ago, Prachya Pinkaew‘s Ong-Bak seemed to herald the birth of a new martial-arts star. Though Tony Jaa didn’t yet display much personality as an actor, his astounding physical prowess, shown off in no-trickery fight scenes, suggested an action athlete capable of filling Jackie Chan‘s shoes. The director and star wasted no time disappointing hopeful viewers: 2005’s The Protector, in pushing away from Ong-Bak‘s human-scale marvels (recall the sight of Jaa leaping through a tiny barbed-wire hoop or between sheets of plate glass) and toward generically huge set pieces, made Jaa just another chop-socky player — and one who, unlike Chan, still hadn’t found a way to charm the viewer.
That diagnosis goes double for The Protector 2, which finds Jaa and Pinkaew embracing the wire-work and CG whose absence made Ong-Bak so refreshing. The dumb, overbusy picture is unlikely to reach as many U.S. viewers as its predecessor did, and suggests that Jaa, far from finding his voice during his brief retirement from the screen, is content to do whatever producers think will sell.
Reprising his role as Kham, the rural kid raised to protect a prized elephant (Khon) as if it were his human brother, Jaa is quickly confronted with big-city evil: Khon is stolen from the village, soon to be employed in a bizarre plot to derail peace talks between warring factions somewhere in Southeast Asia. While pursuing the kidnappers, Kham is framed for the murder of a poacher, whose nieces — trained fighters who specialize in on-the-fly acupuncture — swear to get revenge. (One of the young women is JeeJa Yanin, who starred in Pinkaew’s 2008 Chocolate but is underused here.)
Meanwhile, Khon is held by LC (RZA), the ringleader of a cadre of fighters whose skill-level rankings are branded into their flesh. (No need for a full roster: Number 2, played by American martial artist Marrese Crump, is the sole tough worth watching.) Proving how badly he needs good direction in order to be as compelling onscreen as he is on records, RZA makes LC the kind of villain who chews a diamond-studded toothpick and expresses his approval by slowly applauding, “B. [clap] R. [clap] A. [clap] V. [clap] O.”
LC hopes not only to use the elephant to blow up some politicians, but to force Kham to assassinate an enemy or two along the way. In his efforts to foil LC’s plan, Khon gets help from Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao), the city cop who played sidekick in the last film. The picture’s sole moment of wit comes when Mark hears what’s going on: “You’ve lost your elephant again? Are you sure it’s an elephant and not a kitten?”
Action sequences include a massive motorcycle chase neutered by cheesy wire work, fake parkour, and a climax in which poor Khon’s tusks are used as props in a mindbogglingly stupid way. Rare instances of actual hand-to-hand fighting suffer from Pinkaew’s direction: slo-mo footage and ineffective music drain them of energy, and POV shots in which a fist or foot comes straight at the camera don’t cut away quickly enough to create the illusion we’re actually being hit. Instead we see the foot stop inches away from the camera — moments of ass-kickus interruptus that sum the deflating movie up fairly well.
Production: Sahamongkolfilm Co.
Cast: Tony Jaa, RZA, Petchtai Wongkamlao, JeeJa Yanin, Marrese Crump, Rhatha Phongam
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Screenwriter: Eakasit Thairaat
Producers: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai, Sukanya Vongsthapat
Executive producers: Somsak Techaratanaprasert
Director of photography: Teerawat Rujenathum
Production designer: Sutham Viravandaj
Costume designer: Ekasit Meepraseartsagool
Editors: Manussas Worasingh, Ratchapun Pisutsintop, Chalerm Wongpim, Wichit Wattananon, Richara Phanomrat
Music: Sutham Viravandaj
Rated R, 104 minutes
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