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Tom yum goong (The Protector)

(2006) ** 1/2 R
84 min. The Weinstein Company. Director: Prachya Pinkaew. Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Bongkot Kongmalai, Jin Xing, Johnny Nguyen.

My soft-spot for martial-arts virtuosity requires me to recommend The Protector to like-minded individuals. The acting is unforgivably wooden, chintzy plotting and uneven editing conspire, and lapses in logic and general silliness abound. But Muay Thai practitioner Tony Jaa has all the right moves to elevate The Protector to the level of a worthwhile good-time matinee.

The Protector reunites Jaa with his Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew and, for that matter, reunites both men with the plot of Ong-Bak: young villager must foray into the big city to right an injustice that threatens his home's natural well-being. This time Jaa plays a young Jaturungkabart (elephant protector) named Cam, who freaks out when gangsters kill his father and steal two family elephants. The noble beasts are believed to have "the power of kings," so they become the coveted prize of a dragon lady (Xing Jing) who's executing a gangland coup.

That the dragon lady is both a stereotype and a feminist villain (demanding not to be passed over for a recently opened position as a criminal CEO) is only one of The Protector's many curiosities. There's the fake cameo by a Jackie Chan lookalike (most of my preview audience was duly snookered), lame CGI dream sequences/historical flashbacks, and a mudbath seduction scene that's decidedly unsexy.

Due to the demands of the international market, The Protector is mostly in English, with the English-speaking actors looped and the Thai-speaking actors dubbed: the effect may be peculiar even to martial-arts-film regulars. Despite being the hero, Jaa hardly speaks at all (and when he does, it's mercifully subtitled instead of dubbed), but the Chuck Taylor-clad star puts everything into his physicality, an ingenious evocation of elephantine movement. Jaa adapts traditional Muay Thai by curving his arms like tusks and trunks, and by punctuating the fights with stamping and mighty kicks.

The presence of elephants is The Protector's only real novelty, but the downtime since Ong-Bak has left us hungry enough not to care that the plot and frequent action feel a bit recycled. The vehicular stunt sequences—like a speedboat chase—are clumsy, but the acrobatic fight scenes are like a comic book come to life. The most memorable of several such scenes is a bravura four-minute, single shot following Jaa up the floors of a criminal hideout as he kicks every ass in his way.

Jaa and Pinkaew run out of invention by the finale, which simply sends henchman flailing, one at a time, towards Jaa, who obligingly crunches their bones. Why a room full of forty fighters would line up like they're at the DMV instead of attacking Cam all at once is anyone's guess, but the punishing scene goes on long enough for one to wonder. Such uninventive nastiness harshes the vibe, but Jaa's skills look as if they'll be paying the bills for some time to come.

[For Groucho's interview with Tony Jaa, click here.]

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