Who will be our next big crossover martial-arts hero? Jackie Chan just turned 60, Jet Li is in a state of pseudo-retirement, Donnie Yen never really hit it big in the U.S., and Stephen Chow seems more interested in directing of late. There’s the intense and gifted Iko Uwais of The Raid movies, whose future bankability remains to be seen, and don’t count out Scott Adkins, the Brit who starred in the last, awesome Universal Soldier film. And then there’s Tony Jaa, who seemed ready to take over the mantle of International Ass-Kicking Superstar with his no-frills 2003 hit Ong-Bak, which saw him landing blows and breaking spines with such raw force that it seemed like a terrifying new era of no-holds-barred, no-strings action was being borne before our very eyes.
The ensuing years, however, haven’t quite borne out that early promise. What once felt like stripped-down, no-nonsense filmmaking in Ong-Bak started to feel just plain sloppy in its sequels. And now comes The Protector 2 (also called Tom Yung Goong 2), a sequel to Jaa’s 2005 film, which saw him as an elephant protector who fought poachers, gangsters, and extreme fighters using a style of “elephant boxing” developed specifically for the film. The earlier film did decent business in the U.S., so the sequel is a big-budget international co-production that features RZA (who else?) playing a bad guy and even some native-shot 3-D action scenes. But if you thought the higher profile might have prompted Jaa to up his game, prepare to be disappointed.
Maybe part of the problem is the tone, which attempts to be a lot friendlier than Jaa’s earlier films. His character Kham is an animal lover who likes to spend his time teaching village kids the basics of elephant boxing, much to their parents’ concern. Then, a bunch of goons try to buy Kham’s elephant, whom he treats like a brother. He refuses, but they take the animal anyway. As Kham tries to find his beloved pachyderm, he uncovers a sordid conspiracy involving a gangster (RZA) who likes to stage private fights and who plans to disrupt an upcoming peace conference Thailand is hosting. (That’s what the elephant’s for, apparently.)
It could have been goofy fun, surely. Kham may remind you of one of the lovable oddballs Jackie Chan liked to play. But Jaa, while earnest, doesn’t have Chan’s comic timing or impish spirit, or even his whirling-dervishlike energy. He seems out of place in a film that wants to be all about speed. At one point, he’s chased by a small army of mopeds, and has an elaborate bit of fun with some mopeds as they go through a roof. It’s the kind of scene that a guy like Chan or Jet Li would have milked for maximum humor, keeping themselves and their bewildered and frenzied reactions front and center. Here, it feels patched together, a combination of wide shots and extremely poor CGI effects.
The Protector 2 is also so fragmented, so careless with its narrative, that scenes seem to randomly jut up against each other. Kham’s journey doesn’t require him to do any detective work or anything remotely cerebral. He just shows up at the bad guys’ lair. Which, again, could all be fine — if the action were up to par. Even that aforementioned cruddy CGI might have been okay if the F/X work was being used to render impossible creatures or wild, surreal environments (as they were in Stephen Chow’s deliciously artificial Journey to the West). But the CGI is being used for stunts, which seems to run totally counter to the no-wires, no-stunt-doubles ethos that Jaa established earlier on in his career. Slipshod and tiresome, The Protector 2 is more than a misfire, it’s a betrayal.