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August 8, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | August 8, 2006 |

A query I spoke silently to the Almighty just hours ago: “Lord, why didn’t this movie come out earlier in the summer when I was suffering (albeit willingly, I admit) through the endless parade of overhyped, underwhelming blockbusters You deemed necessary, in whatever infinite wisdom You possess, to place on our screens?” I spoke thus, boldly, because truly The Protector is what I was wanting all summer long.

To be fair, I’ve wanted it since about one second after the credits rolled on Ong-Bak, and I wanted it even more when one of my crew linked me to a clip back in February. I realize I probably sound like a total fanboy without a speck of objectivity about now, but I shall get to the good and the bad momentarily, I promise. Still, I can’t help but sum it up for you right away: This movie is awesome fun.

The story starts in rural Thailand, where a father imparts to his son (and us, of course) some history regarding the symbolic significance of elephants to the Thai monarchy, and the warrior elite who once kept the king’s elephants safe with their mastery of Muay Thai fighting.

The patriarch explains the continued power of these symbols and the honor of their family’s history of raising elephants for possible selection by the king. The son, Cam (Tony Jaa), lives accordingly and trains to protect his family’s herd. When his father is killed and their prize bull and its calf stolen, Cam wastes absolutely no time seeking them out for recovery — and to exact a bit of revenge, of course.

I say no time is wasted, and I really mean it. Exposition is kept to an absolute minimum pretty much throughout the movie. Enough time is spent to identify the rich or gluttonous or evil people, without bothering much with why. Honestly, I consider that to be a positive thing — I didn’t really show up to watch an exploration of the criminal mind, or an in-depth examination of a troubling ecological issue. That’s not to say I never want to see those things, or that I don’t ever care about plot but, in an action film, it’s often better for the plot to stay out of the way, so long as it’s coherent and substantial enough to hang the rest of the action on (tests which the majority of action flicks don’t even pass, putting The Protector above average on that, too).

And, lest it not be clear already, the action is freaking incredible. I’ve seen a fair number of martial arts films in my life. Granted, I cut my teeth on the poorly dubbed, B-grade (if that) stuff that my dad and I used to watch on USA Up All Night (with Rhonda Shear, whose perky pronunciation of the “Up” still makes me smile, if you’ll allow the digression). Since then I’ve watched a fair sampling of the entire range, from Bloodsport to Kurosawa (and most recently have greatly enjoyed Lady Snowblood, thanks to a friend). Anyway, perhaps I’m not a true master, but I’ve seen enough to know something new when I see it, and Tony Jaa brings some truly excellent fight choreography to the table.

While The Protector lacks just a bit of the rawness seen in Ong-Bak, most of the action still eschews CG, and I’m pretty sure there’s essentially no wirework in effect. I’m not against wires, per se — they can be used beautifully, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example — but there’s something undeniably cool about doing it all for real. When Jaa is leaping in and out of trolley cars and vans and over stacks of boxes, up fences, and so on, it’s that much sweeter because it’s not assisted — it’s really a joy to watch.

There’s a lot of it too: boat chases, fights in warehouses, restaurants, offices, and houses, and always against a veritable army of belligerents. In some spots it feels a bit like a video game, but it’s the coolest fighting game you’ve ever played. I lost count of how many bad guys got smacked down, not to mention how many bones get broken. And as in any decent martial arts movie (or video game, for that matter), there are some epic “boss battles” — three separate ones in fact — the first of which plays out the way a live-action Tekken game might if you pitted Bruce against Eddie Gordo, followed by Feng with a sword, then topped it off with Marduk. If that’s all lost on you, suffice it to say that it adds up to a martial goody-bag of four different styles set against a Buddhist temple that’s on fire. Honestly, if that doesn’t sound pretty much “rad” then I don’t know what to say.

The camera direction is also outstanding. There are some lovely shots of majestic elephants and the Thai countryside at the beginning, and the subsequent fight scenes are all quick without being jarring. Of particular note is one extensive Steadicam shot that follows Jaa up a winding stairway (kicking the crap out of, oh, 40? 50? guys on the way) for about five minutes; the seamlessness makes the whole scene feel that much more honest. Also interesting is the occasional decision to keep the action out of frame or obscured by the set. I know this isn’t a new idea, but it’s done really well, and it’s a change of pace to see a man fly straight into the shot from the left and crash through a wall on the right without seeing exactly what led to it.

Leaving aside the light plot — which some will consider a problem, though I’m not among them — there are a few things that don’t work quite right. For one, the film is inconsistently overdubbed. I’d rather nothing ever be overdubbed, under any circumstances, but that’s just because it’s so bad most of the time. It seems like most of the Thai is subtitled, but you can tell certain actors have been dubbed, sometimes when already speaking English, and it’s pretty wooden. To be expected, I guess, but still lame.

There are also a couple of odd CG dream sequences that look really dated and probably could have been realized better (perhaps even more cheaply) with humans. The sudden cut to cartoony CG is unfortunately jarring.

There’s some light-hearted humor to give a little respite from the otherwise relentless pace of the action and, while I found it relatively innocuous, some people might call it silly or out of place. Anyone who’s seen a Jackie Chan flick has an idea of what I’m referring to here, though no one in The Protector is quite as goofy as Jackie can be (this is kind of a double reference, but I can say no more).

All in all The Protector more than lives up to expectations. It’s a ton of fun, and especially welcome after some recent disappointments in that regard. The style leaves little wonder as to why Quentin Tarantino swooped in to put his “Quentin Tarantino presents …” tagline up front, and I’m sure western audiences, perhaps especially those who’ve seen a lot of martial arts, will appreciate the relative novelty of Muay Thai, which doesn’t get an awful lot of direct exposure. If you’ve ever enjoyed a martial arts movie, and I really hope that includes essentially everyone, you can’t go wrong here.

Kerry Benton is a film critic for Pajiba. You can see him in action as “k” on The Supernicety.

Do Not Mess with This Man's Elephant

The Protector / Kerry Benton

Film | August 8, 2006 |

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