[Screen It]

(2006) (Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao) (R)

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Action: A young man travels from Thailand to Australia where he must battle various villains while trying to save the elephants he's vowed to protect.
Following in his father's footsteps, Kham (TONY JAA) has been raised with and taught in the ways of protecting elephants, specifically using the martial arts known as Muay Thai. But when his father is wounded as their adult male elephant, Por Yai, and his son, Kohrn, are stolen, Kham ends up traveling from Thailand to Sydney, Australia in hopes of retrieving his pachyderms. With just a photo of the man responsible, Johnny (JOHNNY TRI NGUYEN), Kham starts his search, but an unfortunate encounter with a criminal gives the wrong impression to local cop Mark (PHETTHAI WONGKHAMLAO) and his partner who arrest him.

Kham manages to escape, runs into a local woman Pla (BONGKOD KONGMALAI) who helps him, battles Johnny and his thugs, and eventually makes his way up through their criminal enterprise to the steely Madame Rose (JIN XING). She'll do anything to be the only heir to her family's operations, including killing any competitors and using elephants for their supposedly mystical powers from long ago. Having to battle Johnny, and an assortment of physically imposing thugs, Kham does what he can to defeat them and Rose, and try to save his precious elephants.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
As one progresses in whatever field they've chosen, the hope is that they'll grow, improve, and deliver better results with each subsequent work. Of course, there's the eventual pinnacle that will inevitably be reached, but until then, one expects some degree of improvement will occur each step along the way.

That's particularly true for actors, and especially those crossing over from another field, such as sports, music or, in the case of Tony Jaa, martial arts. The Thai-born dynamo made his big-screen, U.S. import debut in 2005's "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior," and while his acting was questionable at best, his physical prowess was unmatched and the best since the long-since gone heyday of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in their prime.

In my review for that film, I stated that the aspiring actor needed a better film and -- more importantly -- a better director with which to hone his skills and develop his thespian abilities. Alas, he took the easy way out and has made a film that's quite similar to his debut and uses the same director, Prachya Pinkaew, who now helms Jaa in "The Protector."

Rather than traveling to Bangkok to retrieve the stolen head of a revered Buddha statue, our plucky hero this time travels from Thailand to Sydney, Australia -- of all places -- to rescue two elephants (a male adult and his offspring) who were stolen from him and his father.

You see, their family has a long tradition of protecting elephants -- long ago believed to transfer powers of invincibility to the Thai kings who rode them -- and as everyone knows, you don't mess around with Jim, uh, Jaa, especially when you take his pachyderms and he's an expert in the martial arts known as Muay Thai.

Thus, after a rather prolonged introductory bit establishing that premise, we're jetted off down under for a bit -- okay, a lot -- of butt kicking, limb snapping and physical prowess that would make the likes of Jackie Chan proud. In fact, and much like Schwarzenegger passing off the torch to Dwayne The Rock Johnson in "The Rundown," the martial arts legend does the same to Jaa -- in an ever so brief cameo -- when they bump into each other in the airport.

To get to that action, however, the plot has to have him eventually find the villains -- namely Johnny Tri Nguyen as the tough young punk and Jin Xing as his older and female but equally ruthless and more dangerous boss (the joke being that it's really a guy in drag).

Of course, none of that or his eventual pairing with his former "Ong-Bak" costar, Phetthai Wongkhamlao (this time as a local cop), makes any difference or any sense for that matter (the U.S. import version's reportedly been trimmed by nearly half an hour, thus making the entire effort seem disjointed at best and nonsensical most of the rest of the time).

And that's because the film -- like its predecessor -- is all about the fighting, and this one delivers more than its quota. Notwithstanding his devolution -- in terms of basic storytelling -- from the earlier film, at least Pinkaew learned not to show Jaa's jaw-dropping stunts repeatedly from various angles and all in slow motion as he did before. That doesn't mean the film is technically perfect or even polished -- it's over-edited and some of the shots diffuse and/or partially obscure the action and stunts -- but at least there's been one step in the right direction.

While the picture still doesn't show whether Jaa can act or not, he's certainly upped the ante for himself and other cinematic martial artists in terms of the stunts and fight scenes (all done, like last time, without any wires, body doubles, or special effects).

Most impressive is a four or so minute long tracking shot of the performer fighting his way through a hotel and then up its wide stairwell that rings the inside of the exterior wall. With no cuts, but plenty of opponents and the camera operator following his every move (including up those steps and then capturing all of the falling or thrown bodies), the sequence is muy impressive and nearly worth the price of admission alone.

That's later followed by a less remarkable but still rather "fun" sequence where Jaa's character takes on an enormous amount of assailants who attack him one by one in a scene what will likely remind some viewers of something similar in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" or most any first-person fighter video game (of which the film increasingly starts to resemble).

That scene goes so over the top in its literal, bone-crunching intensity that it's likely to elicit "oohs" and "aahs" from viewers, particularly if they're in a public setting and manage to develop the sort of group viewing mentality that can make films like this somewhat entertaining to behold. Alas, the finale of taking on the main villain is a big letdown, especially when compared to what precedes it.

Absolutely horrible from a storytelling or filmmaking standpoint but often impressive in terms of the stunt work, "The Protector" will likely entertain martial arts fans, but it's not going to do anything to further Jaa's acting potential or career. The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed September 5, 2006 / Posted September 8, 2006

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