Review: The Protector 2
PLOT: Country-boy Kham's (Tony Jaa) beloved elephant Khon is once again kidnapped. Rather than by a cartel of poachers, this time his disappearance is engineered by a gangster (RZA) somehow connected to a terrorist plot to interrupt peace talks at a conference held in Bangkok.
REVIEW: There's a clever moment in THE PROTECTOR 2 (known elsewhere was TOM YUN GOONG 2) where RZA tells Tony Jaa's Kham how impressed he was with his work in Sydney (referring to the first film) but how in the last five years he's wasted his potential living like a “country-boy.” This feels like an effort by Jaa's crew to address the erosion of his stardom over the last half-decade, which saw him make two badly conceived and received sequels to ONG BAK, and an odd episode where announced his retirement to become a Buddhist monk, only to immediately sign a contract to do more movies. For awhile it looked like Jaa had lost his marbles, but now he's back in the big-budget and ambitious THE PROTECTOR 2.
Sadly, the Jaa on display here is not the lithe and dynamic hero of the first ONG BAK and THE PROTECTOR. If this had come along before Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais inexorably changed the landscape of martial arts cinema with THE RAID, it might have seemed fine. But watching this after seeing THE RAID 2 is like watching one of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies after seeing THE DARK KNIGHT. The envelope has been pushed and there's simply no going back. If Jaa's ever going to get back to where he was, he'll have to do much better than this.
THE PROTECTOR 2 has a lot of problems. In the hopes of making this a global blockbuster, the budget's been boosted allowing director Prachya Pinkaew to shoot his sequel in 3D. Just like Jaa, a few years ago I would have said Pinkaew was the future of action cinema, with his great, free-flowing action scenes from the first movie, THE KICK and CHOCOLATE being especially impressive. Now that's he's got more toys at his disposal, Pinkaew feels like an “also-ran” with him trying hard – it seems – to make an American-style actioner. Who watches a Tony Jaa movie for that? Even in 2D, the effects are laughable, looking like something left over from JAWS 3D. Maybe in actual 3D they look cool, but that's not how it's going out in North America. Anytime they interrupt an action scene for an FX shot it looks schlocky and unrendered.
Even worse, it just about ruins all of the set-pieces. An early – endless – motorcycle/rooftop chase is full of CGI and wirework, as opposed to the way Jaa defiantly used to so all of his stunts for real. A sequence where he fights three guys in a room full of cgi fire is especially sad, as it's reminiscent of a bit in ONG BAK where real fire was used. Fanboys will also have a field day with a bit where lightsaber sound fx are used in a fight. The copy I was sent to review had the title listed as TOM YUN GOONG 2. Hopefully on the US print these sound fx have been dropped, as they're so goofy they ruin an other decent brawl. Only when Jaa goes mano-a-mano with fighters like Marrese Crump as RZA's chief henchman does the film almost work, but even here the fights aren't that impressive.
The sad reality is that Jaa is physically past his prime. Still, a guy like Donnie Yen, who's a decade older than Jaa is still an incredible action hero, with his best movies like SPL and FLASH POINT succeeding even when he's not kicking someone's ass. THE PROTECTOR 2 grinds to a halt any time people aren't fighting, with the dopey plot, involving mean ol' RZA holding Jaa's elephant hostage so he'll commit an assassination, never being anything more than laughable. It doesn't help that RZA, who always seems to play criminal masterminds these days, doesn't really make for much of a baddie although he does nicely in his big fight scene opposite Jaa.
THE PROTECTOR 2 does have one thing going for it, CHOCOLATE star Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda, who plays the vengeful niece of a man Jaa's accused of killing. She brings a lot of heart to what could have been a thankless part. Truth be told, she's also a lot more impressive in the action scenes than Jaa is here. Ryan Gosling's ONLY GOD FORGIVES love interest Yayaying Rhatha Phongam also pops up as a villainous henchwoman, and fulfils the requisite eye candy role relatively well. Being a Prachya Pinkaew movie, Thai comedian Petchtai Wongkamlao shows up to provide some comic relief, with his character having somehow been promoted to being an Interpol agent.
It's a real shame THE PROTECTOR 2 is such a let-down as even in a post-RAID 2 world, there's room for a guy like Jaa, just as long as he gives it his all. Martial arts pics don't allow for their stars to phone it in. If they aren't impressive on an action level, there's no point to them at all. Sadly, that's often the case with this. Hopefully Jaa and Pinkaew will do better next time.