Protector: Ultimate Edition, The (US - DVD R1)
Gabe takes on Tony Jaa, then wakes up in the hospital with 37 broken bones...
Note: My film review is written in response to the longer, international cut of the film, entitled Tom Yum Goong . As the director's original version I felt obligated.
Kham (Tony Jaa) is a simple, elephant raising country boy with amazing martial arts skills. After a group of poachers kidnap his elephant and its child (and kill his father depending on which cut of the film you watch), Kham journeys to Australia seeking revenge (and his elephants). Along the way he beats bad guys silly with his mad Thai boxing skills. There's also a transgender mob boss and comic relief cop in there, not to mention a rogues gallery of other martial arts masters, each specializing in his own specific style of ass kicking.
I have to mark myself on that short list of folks that were under whelmed by Tony Jaa's Western World breakthrough, Ong Bak. When I finally got my hands on the DVD I enjoyed myself, but thought the film was entirely forgettable minus the Muay Thai boxing angle. I like a good stunt and skull-crushing elbow attack, but I pretty much forgot the entire film the second it was over.
I had higher hopes for Tom Yum Goong, due to word of mouth and Genius Products' brilliantly edited trailer. After I heard that the Weinsteins had gotten their grubby editor's hands on the negative I decide to skip the theatrical run. I've seen a few too many flubbed and fondled Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow movies to see another Weinstein acquired Asian action flick in US theatres ever again. Fortunately for me, someone at Dragon Dynasty (probably Bey Logan) decided to include the original Thai cut of the renamed Protector (and for the record, Tarantino only put his name on the film in hopes of getting butts in American theatre seats, he had nothing to do with either cut of the film).
Like Ong Bak, I find myself struggling to remember anything specific about The Protector besides a few fleeting images of bone breaking and tendon slicing. The movie is not particularly bad, and the fight sequences are well choreographed and plentiful, but the plot is boring, tired, and there's far too much stupid between fisticuffs. Contrary to reason, I actually thoroughly enjoyed the early sequences, which are a kind of Disney take on Death Wish, featuring elephants. The humanized elephants are charming, and I did find myself rooting for Jaa whilst he rescued them. The darn pachyderms are so charming they often end up upstaging the humans, emotionally at least.
But who am I kidding, I watched this film for the flurry of bone-crunching elbow and knee attacks, not the plot or character arcs. Unfortunately, though intricately conceived, the fight scenes often look as if filmed and edited by amateurs. They're also entirely asinine when looked at contextually. This isn't particularly uncommon for the genre, but these set-ups require a very special brand of belief suspension. I ended up laughing more than cheering. I enjoyed the over the top quality of the fights, but the rest of the film is such a mind numbing bore, and doesn't even seem to take place in the same universe as these bizarre sequences. Subsequent viewings will require the remote's chapter skip button, I'm sure.
There's no point in asking any logical questions while watching The Protector, because there aren't any answers. How does Jaa find out specifically who stole his elephants? Where did all those extreme sports fighters come from? Does a hidden entourage of dirt bike riding wushu experts follow the second in command baddie at all times? How did that guy get out of police custody? Where did that elephant and refugee moving truck come from? Why didn't Jaa at least attempt to free those slaves? Why did he think walking his baby elephant back into the bad guy's base would be a good idea? Where did all these giant wrestlers come from? It doesn't matter.
It's kind of like playing the old 8-bit Ninja Gaiden Nintendo game. You have to sit through hours of erroneous and convoluted cut scene plot while waiting to get to the action. Then when the game play begins it makes no narrative sense. Colourful villains, some with supernatural powers, wander every street, and are themed. After fighting enough of these nobodies you will arrive at the end of the level, where you have to invariably fight a giant behemoth of a boss. One isn't normally expected to find logic in an 8-bit video game, so maybe I'm wrong for seeking it here. If you're a person that looks back on his or her Nintendo experiences with a warm heart and a smile, you'll probably have the patience for this motion picture (of course after writing this I read Chris Gould's review of the film, who compares the film to Kung Fu Master, destroying any hope I have for an original writing voice)
Though thematically The Protector is an original Nintendo game (a game I'd totally play, by the way), it's filmed more like an early Nintendo 64 game. With the obvious exception of one bravado sequence where a steady cam follows Jaa up the stairs to the top of the title restaurant without cutting (very, very video game-like), the camera placement on the action scenes is often awful. Ong Bak sidestepped this problem by taking a page from the Jackie Chan director's book and showing a particularly crafty stunt over and over from different angles. Here it appears that a camera was just placed on set, and the action edited according to when a character leaves frame (though sometimes nothing of interest remains in frame for far too long, this mostly pertains to the four wrestler fight). Perhaps all the planning went into the staircase sequence.
Jaa himself is improving as an actor, and is given plenty of chances to genuinely emote. We're not talking a Brandoesque range here, but some pretty decent crying scenes. The thrilling acrobatics are pretty breathtaking, and the hordes of all-too-willing stuntmen Jaa crushes should entertain the most rabid, old-school chop socky fans. By the final fight the film has earned its 'R' rating, a nice direction for martial arts cinema to be heading. It's a fun enough time, but not so fun as to push it too far above the 'average' line. Shockingly enough (to myself at least), I actually agree that some fat was in need of trimming here, though the hacks at Genius didn't exactly find the most graceful ways to re-cut the film (more on that in the 'Extras' section). If you like 8-bit video games, bone breaking and elephants you could probably do a whole lot worse.
Both the US and International releases have solid transfers, but there are some differences. The international version has darker and richer blacks, but sacrifices some detail. The US version is much brighter, and features slightly more vibrant colours, but suffers noise and blocking, especially in bright reds. Both transfers are grainy, specifically during darker scenes utilizing super slow motion. Most strange is the fact that the US cut is framed differently than the Thai cut.
The filmmakers have gone all out with colour, which goes a few yards towards making the film memorable. One gets the impression from watching popular Thai cinema that Thailand is a generally colour saturated country. There are also some interesting uses of focus, specifically in the film's early scenes and flashbacks. If only the camera was well placed for all the fight sequences we may've had at least a visual triumph on our hands here.
DTS fans will be saddened to know that only the lesser US cut has a DTS soundtrack. The Thai release only has a poorly mixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The audio problems here are more the fault of the original mix than the DVD's producers. The music is thin and frail, often working against a given scene. Often the on screen action will tell the audience that it's time to kick ass, while the soundtrack tells us it's time for a nap. The dialogue is clear enough (as clear as broken English can be), but like all other sound effects fades during fight scenes, which overplay the sounds of bones cracking and fists connecting.
The RZA's soundtrack on the US release runs hot and cold. The RZA has actually proved himself as an adept score writer over the years, but there's too much lame hip-hop about to really love this soundtrack. Occasionally the new score is a vast improvement over the old, especially during some of the more visceral fights. The music is on the unoriginal side, but adds the necessary punch the Thai score so sorely lacks.
Like Dragon Dynasty's first releases, Kill Zone, The Protector: Ultimate Edition looks better on paper than on the screen. There's several extras listed, but many of them are short-lived featurettes. Regardless, there's some great stuff here.
The set's selling point is the inclusion of the original cut. In a way this is an extra feature. The original cut is flawed, and could stand a lot of trimming, but the US cut is still a prime example of how to not re-cut an already silly film. The first part of the film, the elephant part that takes place in Thailand, is brutally truncated, from entire scenes to trimmed shots. Certain elements are reworked, for instance the death of a character who doesn't die in the Thai cut. Later scenes are trimmed by seconds here and there, making the film assaultive and too blunt. I agree that the film is poorly paced, but cutting nearly thirty minutes is a little harsh.
The great stuff begins, as it should, with Bey Logan's commentary track. Unfortunately Logan has only supplied a track for the shorter US version of the film, and spends a bit too much time defending the new cut. Logan, of course, knows everything about everyone on screen, and vomits facts at a million miles an hour. Though he genuinely seems to like the film, he manages to point out several of its major shortcomings, mostly related to plot holes, of which there are plenty. There are so many I didn't even notice half of them. Logan manages to make the film seem equal parts better and worse throughout the commentary.
Disc one (the US cut) features a brief 'making-of', Called No Strings Attached, that doesn't really delve too much into the film, but then, the film is a pretty shallow pool. Logan is on hand for interview, as is Jaa and his choreographer. Those interested in a little more meat on the bones of their making-of featurettes may want to check out disc two, which features a more specific Thai making of. The making of Tom Yum Goong runs about an hour, and consists of raw, behind the scenes footage narrated by the director, star, and a moderator.
Disc one also features a featurette on 'The Making of Tony Jaa', which pretty much speaks for itself. For those that know nothing of Jaa other than this film, it's a well-made and short history of the man, his abilities, and discovery. I'm still rather shocked that this is only his second leading role, and hope someone is already teaching him English for what could be a solid Hollywood career.
There's a long feature on the four minute, one take steady cam sequence, where director Prachya Pinkaew walks us through all five takes. Watching the same four minutes of film five times is a little tedious, but the feature is still fascinating to anyone interested in the mechanics of filmmaking. After watching it I actually found new respect for the film as a whole, but not enough to forget the less well constructed sequences.
A longer version of the film's first real fist-fight is included here. Logan's commentary states several other deleted sequences that somehow did not find there way onto this DVD. This scene really didn't need the extra punches, and its absence isn't a very big deal. What I could've used was a preceding sequence where Jaa figures out how to find these ruffians, but that was never filmed.
The rest of the disc is made up of trailers and soundtrack promos, along with a Tony Jaa stunt 'how-to' reel. These demonstrations with the stunt crew are a Jaa standard now, featured on the Ong Bak DVD, and before all major premiers of his films. It's very impressive, and as an out of shape couch potato, I am thoroughly jealous. Oh, I almost forgot the cell phone promotional 'cartoon', or 'Mobisode' which may be the most obnoxious special feature on an otherwise decent DVD I've ever seen.
Disc two, besides the uncut film and the featurette, has a set of three original short films that were apparently part of some kind of promotional contest. All three films are very impressive, impressive enough to overshadow some of the real movie's set pieces. It'd be nice if these fellas got something out of this.
A good DVD, and two versions of an average film. Martial arts fans tired of the graceful acrobatics of chop socky flicks like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers will like the film, and have probably already seen it. I recommend at least a rent, but not for the US theatrical cut. The Thai cut is flabby, but a much better film overall.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 16th January 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 Thai, DTS 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 Thai, Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, Spanish, English CC
Extras: Bey Logan Commentary, Martial Arts Demo, Deleted Fight Scene, Making Tony Jaa, Mobisode, "No Wires Attached", Soundtrack Promo, Trialer, Making Tom Yum Goong, Short Film Contest Winners
Easter Egg: No
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Xing Jing, Nathan Jones
Length: 111 minutes
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