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If only there were no breaks in the action

When star Tony Jaa is off-screen, `The Protector' sputters. But when he's on, watch out.

September 08, 2006|Robert K. Elder | Chicago Tribune

Conventional wisdom dictates: Never bring a knife to a gunfight.

But what exactly do you bring to an elephant fight?

Answer: Thai martial arts sensation Tony Jaa.

Jaa follows up his superstar turn in "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" with "The Protector," an overstuffed action vehicle about a man looking for his elephants.

When gangsters steal his family's prized elephants and murder his father, Kham (Jaa) goes on the warpath. Elephants, you see, are a prized symbol of Thai culture as the tanks of ancient field warfare. It's said that the perfect elephant and its spirit imbued the king with boundless power. As the guardian of these tusky mammoths, Kham sees himself as a modern-day Jaturungkabart -- a royal protector of elephants and the king.

Perhaps fittingly, "The Protector" is exactly like an elephant, mostly slow and lumbering -- but with great menacing charges of excitement.

Jaa re-teams with "Ong-Bak" director Prachya Pinkaew for this outing, but to greatly diminished effect. Still in place are the overly sentimental, Vaseline-lens shots of Kham's rosy rural upbringing, but the choppy action and hummingbird editing compounds a royal mess.

Anytime Jaa isn't on screen, "The Protector" sputters. Even when Kham (misspelled as Cam in the movie's subtitles) travels to Sydney and teams up with Thai-born cop Mark (Phetthai Wongkhamlao), the tangle of subplots slows the film's momentum immensely.

But Pinkaew gives us flashes of sheer cinematic chutzpah, including a breathtaking, unbroken scene of Kham fighting his way up the levels of his nemesis' club. It's a dance between good and evil, performer and cameraman, one shimmering spot of brilliance in an otherwise muddy film.

Granted, some 25 minutes were cut from the original Thai version, but it's doubtful this version of "The Protector" lost any action in its American release. As it is, the spare dialogue only acts as an intermission between Jaa's bone-shattering acts of prowess in muay Thai.

For the uninitiated, the martial art muay Thai relies on a great deal of arm-twisting and close-quarters knee-and-elbow work. After a while, the sound of Jaa crushing arms, kneecaps and wrists is enough to make us think, "Why doesn't someone just shoot this guy?"

Of course, by this time, we've already seen Jaa take on muscle-bound WWE castoffs and a small army of extreme sports stars on skateboard, bikes, motorcycles -- even a tricked-out four-wheeler. We're not here for realism, just skull busting.

On this count, "The Protector" delivers -- if you don't doze off between action scenes.


`The Protector'

MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong violence and some sexual content

A Weinstein Co. release. Director Prachya Pinkaew. Screenplay by Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, Napalee, Piyaros Thongdee and Joe Wannapin, story by Prachya Pinkaew. Cinematography by Nuttawut Kittikun. Producers Pinkaew and Sukanya Vongsthapat. Partially dubbed in English, and in Thai, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

In selected theaters.

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