September 19, 2006

Where Are My Elephants?

The Protector
(Prachya Pinkaew, 2005) ****

The version of this movie that is currently playing in US theaters is 25 minutes shorter than the original Thailand cut. I assume that everything in this movie that is not martial arts has been tossed. There is very little connective tissue in this movie. That is, any sort of mystery element of how Tony Jaa finds out where his elephants are is no longer here and is obvious by its absence. Now I've long been one of those movie buffs who did not approve of the Weinstein brothers' habit, first at Miramax and now at The Weinstein Company, of cutting foreign movies for the American market. However, I am not that indignant this time. Why?

1. Pinkaew's previous Muay Thai extravaganza, Ong Bak, took 35 minutes to get going. Is anyone longing for more city-mouse-country-mouse byplay between Tony Jaa and his sidekick? Pinkaew does not have a good record when it comes to narrative setup.

2. When Tony Jaa is not kicking ass, he does not light up the screen with his presence. He has neither the charm of Jackie Chan nor the charisma of Jet Li. He is just a pretty athletic guy. I do not weep for the lost scenes of Tony Jaa's dramatic acting that I was denied.

3. What remains is so entertaining that any of the martial arts sequences on its own would be worth full ticket price. Once Tony Jaa gets going, the world is his jungle gym. There is one long take around some abandoned streetcars in which Tony hurtles through windows and swings around on the metal bars inside, sending his enemies flying hither and yon. There is another long take in which he finds behind a nondescript Thai restaurant, a multistory atrium surrounded by a spiral staircase and whose different levels can be found everything from hookers to a restaurant serving endangered species. Tony runs up the stairs to the first landing and fights someone on the first landing, out of our view (the camera, acting as a character, seems reluctant to follow Tony at first). The nameless assailant is then thrown through the balustrade that concealed our view. Tony has to fight his way back down to the lobby by which time the camera has summoned up enough courage to follow our hero all the way to the top in one unbroken take in which many bodies, much furniture, and a sink are thrown.

4. Elephants. This has the same plot as Ong Bak. Bad guys from the city come to the countryside to steal a piece of Thai culture, in this case, two elephants bred for use of the King. The elephants here are as satisfying in their monumental pachydermness as those in Oliver Stone's Alexander (whose elephants were easily the best part of that film).


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