The Protector (2005) — The Bruce Lee you’ve never known

“With a perfect elephant, the power of kings will be yours.”

Shalen’s rating: (Gasps for air)

Shalen’s review: There is a certain number of films that I review because I feel I ought to review them as part of the Canon of Film*. There’s a certain number I review even though I hated them, because I feel I ought to make everyone else suffer as much as I did**. And there is a certain number of movies I review because I am hopelessly in love with those movies. Much like Eight Legged Freaks, Soldier, and of course the first Tony Jaa movie Ong Bak, The Protector belongs to the latter group.

This will not make any sense to you unless you know who Tony Jaa is. Tony Jaa is shaping up to have somewhat the same effect on the world of martial arts filmmaking as his predecessor and personal idol, Bruce Lee. According to himself and his publicists, Tony Jaa grew up on an elephant farm in Thailand and taught himself an extinct form of Thai martial art called Muay Thai as well as imitating moves he saw in Bruce Lee movies. This tale seems a bit too charming to be true, but I definitely wouldn’t want to say that to his face, or anywhere within twenty-five feet of his face, because I’m pretty sure he can jump that far. Anyway, it’s certainly true that he is fundamentally, patriotically Thai, he practices Muay Thai, and he appears to have a special arrangement with gravity, because returning to earth once he leaves the ground seems to be optional for him.

The film’s plot is a little difficult for the Western viewer. Tony Jaa plays Cam, who grew up around elephants and whose father trained him to be a Protector. From the film’s title, you would expect this to be another of those silly bodyguard-rescues-rich-dumb-girl movies, but it’s not. Protectors were a historical group whose job it was to protect the king of Thailand’s elephants during battle, guarding their vulnerable tendons and bellies using Muay Thai. Cam and his father are suckered into letting their two elephants, Por Yai and Kohrn, be kidnapped by bad guys in the employ of a Japanese gangster who believes owning a perfect elephant will let her gain power despite the prejudice of her family members***.

In essence, it’s another variation of the plot in which the small-town rube with the amazing skills goes to the big city and beats up everyone in sight, much like in Ong Bak. Along the way our hero kills a helicopter with a wooden boat, uses elephant bones to take down giant wrestlers, fights dozens of guys at once, and demonstrates an ability to break peoples’ limbs with his groin. The problem is that the film occasionally jumps around to focus on other characters who don’t fight people, and it does this in an abrupt enough way to leave one wondering whether they’re not accidentally watching two different films at the same time. The dialogue is of about the quality you’d expect.

The biggest difference from Ong Bak is that the Western viewer is liable to be profoundly confused by all this fuss over a couple of elephants. Yes, they’re a national symbol. But how many Americans do you know who would fly to Japan with no money, no ability to speak the language, and quite probably annoyed gangsters in the way, to try and retrieve a kidnapped bald eagle? We can grow some more. They’re not even that endangered any more. And besides, it’s illegal to own a wild animal, so it’s not like we keep them as pets.

This is not at all how Thai folks feel about elephants. They’re apparently viewed more like horses, in the sense of large herbivorous mammals that people are very, very attached to even though they can kill people****, but they have that patriotic national symbol connotation attached to them, too. Tony Jaa interacts so well with elephants that he’s somewhat better at looking anxious that his elephants are gone than sorry that his father is dead. Early in the film when he’s playing with Por Yai is the only time in this or Ong Bak that we ever see him really smile.

But never mind the elephants. I really can’t overemphasize how amazing the stunts are in this movie. I was convinced the long chase scene in Ong Bak couldn’t be topped. It is. More than once. Possibly even more than twice. There’s that famously long cut in which he runs up the spiral floors of a club, thrashing everyone in his way without pause, but that’s not even my favorite. I prefer the scene where he fights, in turn, a capoiera artist, a wushu****** fighter with a sword, and a giant bulgy-veined wrestler.

And as far as the violence itself goes, it’s beautiful. And here I’m not talking about Quentin Tarantino flying-through-the-air-in-slow-motion-to-odd-music beautiful. There’s a true poetry in the interaction of human bodies, and it is this that appeals to the fan of martial arts as opposed to the fan of other forms of cinematic violence. Here there is no wirework to make it fake, no CGI between us and the hard reality of fists and feet. And there is not an annoying level of cutting designed to make the actors look like they can do more than they really can, the way we’ve been seeing with more recent Li/Chan movies. The camera is there to show us the action, not obscure it. This is the way all fighting movies should be made, in this reviewer’s probably-not-very-humble opinion.

If you’ve ever even slightly enjoyed watching a martial arts movie, you need to see this one. Right now. Now now now.

*Such as Nosferatu. And it is correct for me to say “there is a certain number” or “there are a certain number,” because the verb in this case could be taken to refer to either the singular noun “number” or the plural noun “films.” I’ll bet you didn’t care in the slightest about that, did you?
**Such as Children of Men and Serenity, and let me tell you, moving to a different state was not the only reason Shalen did not submit anything for Whedon Week.
***Rose is played by a transsexual, rendering the gender prejudice angle rather odd. I didn’t actually notice this on the first viewing. I just thought she was Hollywood skinny.
****Sorry, Sue and others. I’ve never liked horses much. I like dogs and cats and snakes and especially arachnids, some of the latter of which are quite dangerous to human beings, but I’ve just never been into the concept of hoofed critters that are as smart as dogs and much, much bigger. There was this time in college when I was surrounded by draft horses blowing their noses on my shirt, which was both creepy and really gross, and I never quite got over it. Whereas I regularly encourage spiders to walk on me and let them roam freely through my house. Go figure.
******Another term for what some of us would call kung fu.

Didja notice?

  • “Quentin Tarantino presents?” Right. Like he had anything to do with this.
  • The police in Australia tie people’s hands with rope? Since when?
  • The actor who played Hum Lai in Ong Bak plays the policeman Mark in this one.
  • Awww. The elephants are holding trunks.
  • Ambiguous ending. Again, it’s less so in the international version.
  • Kicking out a streetlight. Freaking amazing.
  • Florescent light bulbs really don’t make very good staves at all.
  • The vanishing bodies in the temple fight scene – apparently each challenger staggers or crawls away somehow as the next one shows up.
  • Jackie Chan tribute with the double at the airport. I thought it was actually Jackie Chan the first time I saw it.
  • Blatant product placement: The Thai rock star with the can of energy drink in the foreground in a scene where Mark is standing on the street, talking on a phone.
  • Ditto: Jaws brand toilet paper. It has a shark on the label. Because you don’t want soft toilet paper, you want to be bitten severely about the nether regions.
  • Live scorpion: tasty.
  • That is the biggest VIP room in the history of the planet.
  • Candles-on-the-back therapy becomes shards-of-broken-glass therapy. Ow.
  • I really could have done without the “old guys in the mud bath” scene.
  • You know, if the police are looking for you, and all they have to go on is that you’re wearing a red scarf, maybe you should take off the freaking scarf. Just an idea.
  • Nearly everyone who speaks only English in this movie is evil. Those who are less so speak both English and Thai (Mark) or solely Thai (Cam).

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