Tom Yum Goong (Thailand 2005)

Rating: ****
Alternate Titles: "The Protector" (US), "Honor Of The Beast"
Review Date: 5/9/10
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Martial Arts Choreography: Tony Jaa
Cast: Tony Jaa, Johnny Nguyen

Wow! Tony Jaa's follow up to "Ong-Bak" (2003) is a martial arts masterpiece that surpasses its predecessor in every way. The creative team has matured and they had a much bigger budget to work with this time. Tony Jaa is a young Thai man named Kham whose world is shattered when two of his elephants are stolen by criminals. He tracks the poachers to Sydney, Australia, and launches a one-man assault to free the animals and exact his revenge on the bad guys. And heaven help those who stand in his way... The plot is mostly incidental and the movie tends to drag between action scenes, but that gives you a chance to sit back and try to catch your breath. The stunt work is superb and the raw skill and athleticism of the performers is breathtaking. The film features a good balance of environmental stunts and straight-up fighting, and Tony Jaa's grace and power are sheer poetry in motion. The other stunt performers are excellent and do a great job of keeping up with Jaa, and Johnny Nguyen's fight stands out as a highlight. In fact, all of the set pieces are spectacular in their own right, with each trying to outdo the previous one. Unfortunately, this falls apart right at the very end, and the bone fight is just a little too much. The most impressive scene in the entire film is a four minute long tracking shot of Jaa storming a building and beating up everyone in his way. The cinematography, choreography, timing, and pacing are incredible, and one has to wonder how long it took to set up and rehearse (not to mention how many takes were required). Most people would fall victim to exhaustion performing at this level for even a minute, and by the end of the shot you can see that Jaa is about to collapse. There are several other long shots that are also quite impressive and reminiscent of John Woo and Jackie Chan.

While the focus of the film is on the action, I have to point out that the filmmaking itself is quite good and the production values are excellent. The cinematography, lighting, colors, and compositions are beautiful and the film looks very slick and professional. The humor that plagued "Ong-Bak" is mercifully absent, and apart from Sergeant Mark, there are no annoying characters. Some of the action scenes dip into the absurd, and while they're technically impressive, they tend to break suspension of disbelief. The rollerblade fight scene immediately comes to mind. Why on earth would anyone attempt to fight wearing rollerblades? And how much of a threat would they really be? (they're having a hard enough time just trying to keep their balance, let alone beat someone up) Similar stunts also plagued the recent "Raging Phoenix" (2009). I also noticed some minor continuity issues in the fight scenes, where they keep showing the same bad guys running into the room, but they're never any of the people that end up fighting. A minor nit-pick, but glaringly obvious. Another weak spot in the film is in the audio department. The musical score is bland and instantly forgettable, and the bone crunching sound effects during the fight scenes are so outrageous that they actually detract from the action. Still, these minor issues don't diminish the overall effect of the film or the power of its relentless action scenes. Great stuff for jaded martial arts fans.