It was probably a mistake, in boxoffice terms, to release "Ong Bak" under it's original Thai-language title rather than something a little more domestic-sounding in the U.S. However, is it too much to ask that the Weinstein Bros. had been a little more creative in rechristening the film's followup, "Tom Yum Goong," with a title SLIGHTLY less generic than "The Protector?"
"Ong Bak," of course, was the worldwide debut film of martial-arts wunderkind Tony Jaa. A brawny kung-fu slugfest with a decidedly old-school vibe ("lone Buddhist warrior vs. armies of big city thugs,") it was an immediate sensation with genre fans and coaxed grudging admiration for it's hard-working star from even the most fun-phobic critic (even as they acknowledged the film's determined primitiveness in matters of story structure.)
"Protector" re-unites Jaa with "Ong Bak's" director Prachya Pinkaew, which is good. It also re-unites him with his sidekick from "Ong Bak," Petchai Wongkamlao, which is amusing. It also re-unites him with the plot from "Ong Bak," which is... well, it is what it is. For those who missed it (or saw it and just didn't feel the need to pay attention) "Bak" cast Jaa as a master of Muy Thai Kickboxing who leaves his peaceful rural village in Thailand for big city Bangkok to retrieve a holy statue stolen by gangsters. He's once more the kickboxing country-boy here, a caretaker of sacred Elephants who heads for Australia when his prized pachyderms are swiped by the creepiest poachers this side of Cruella DeVille.
Built heavily on Jaa's now-legendary popularity in his homeland, the film (just like "Ong Bak") is awash in nationalistic cheerleading and religious zeal: His character, Kham, is a descendant of the warriors charged with raising and training Thailand's mighty War Elephants of old. His enemies, by contrast, are Aussies, English-speaking Chinese gangsters, nonspecific Caucausian muscleheads and even a dreadlock'd Capoeira fighter. He encounters a Sydney that's entirely corrupt and bigoted, and finds allies only in the city's racially-oppressed Thai immigrant community. At one point, he wails on a succession of enemies using the various sacred items in a Buddhist temple. All of this is presented with a complete lack of irony or commentary, and the effect is frequently charming.
The big improvement over "Ong Bak," aside from a demonstrably larger production value and more self-assured direction from Pinkaew (we no longer see Jaa's every "cool" move repeated nine times for effect,) is that Jaa is up against villians who are both colorful enough to match his exuberant physicality and truly hateful enough to warrant the beating he dishes out: Female wannabe Triad-boss Madame Rose's (played by superstar Chinese ballerina Jin Xing in full pre-breakdown Lady MacBeth mode) evil scheme is the kidnapping of animals for her illegal underground resturaunt where endangered species are served to wealthy clients. Seriously. (Interestingly, the film seems to have Xing playing the character as a traditional whip-cracking kung-fu femme-fatale; with no reference to her more famous real-life identity as a male-to-female transsexual.)
The unavoidable absurdity of a vengeance-crazed kickboxer (literally) tearing armies of men apart with his bare hands in a blood-soaked quest to liberate... cute baby animals (I dare any "Simpsons" fan not to guffaw uncontrollably when they realize that Jaa spends most of the film screaming "Where's my elephant!!??" at the bad guys) winds up like a kind of "nuttiness-virus" that infects the rest of the film, and whether or not you can "roll" with that kind of disjointed surreality will be a big factor in whether or not you'll have fun with it.
Jaa and Pinkaew clearly had their fun, using the terminal-nuttiness diagnosis to stage setpiece scenes of maniacal invention: At one point one of Madame Rose's underbosses, having been cornered in a warehouse by Kham, pulls a chain that blows a giant siren-horn... causing mountain-bikers, rollerbladers and other extreme-sports thugs to come running from all over Sydney to beat Kham up with flourescent lightbulbs. They also find time to execute the most impressive use of single-shot steadicam in awhile, a nearly five-minute unbroken shot following Kham as he pummels his way through the levels of the resturaunt.
This is the kind of thing I go to the kung-fu movies hoping to see, and I had a ball with it. Go in with the right frame of mind, and I bet most of you will, too. And, again, how can you not root for a guy who's willing to take on a roomful of about thirty or more armed attackers just to protect a baby elephant?
FINAL RATING: 7/10