A little over 10 years ago, Thai action cinema was up and coming. With Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkaew spearheading the genre, the future looked bright. Tom Yum Goong [The Protector/Honour of the Dragon] was their second collaboration and it raised the bar for all to follow. But now that the hype has subsided, I was quite curious to see if the film could still hold its own. And while the answer isn't quite as straight-forward as I'd hoped, I still liked this film. A lot.
Pinkaew and Jaa crashed the scene two years earlier with Ong-bak, a splendid little martial arts film that turned a lot of heads and provided heaps of exposure for Thai cinema. It's one thing to produce a surprise hit though, following it up with a second film that actually improves on it is probably an even bigger feat. All that extra cash and attention is rarely a guarantee for a better film, but Pinkaew and Jaa handled it surprisingly well.
Tom Yum Goong isn't a sequel to Ong-bak but it very well could have been. It features all the same key ingredients, only everything is bigger and bolder the second time around. There's the strong focus on Muay Thai fighting, a high-speed non-standard vehicle chase, some mediocre drama and lots of bad guys that serve little purpose other than getting beat up in style. In that sense it's not that different from every other martial arts film out there, except that it has Tony Jaa in his prime.
Even though it's unlikely anyone is watching this one for its plot, here's the gist of it: Jaa was brought up by a tribe of elephant trainers. When one of the tribe's elephants is chosen to be presented to the king (the greatest honour one can bestow onto their people) Jaa, his master and the elephant all travel to the city. Once there they are ambushed by a gang looking for prime elephant meat. The criminals manage to take the elephant and transport him to Australia. When Jaa finds out about their location he doesn't think twice about following his beloved elephant in order to rescue it.
Visually there are two sides to this film. Whenever Pinkaew is focusing on plot progression and drama, Tom Yum Goong looks disappointingly bland. It stands in great contrast with the magnificent action cinematography, to the point where it becomes almost impossible to believe these scenes are actually from the same film. The camera work during the fight sequences is nothing less than stunning, with an extremely agile and mobile camera following Jaa around all over the place. Standout scene is the fight in the restaurant, an admittedly fake one-take tracking shot that just flutters through the entire building while Jaa is kicking down opponents left and right.
The soundtrack is less interesting. It's comprised of some pretty generic-sounding adrenaline-fueled tracks that fail to truly engage. It's just music that rages on in the background, in order to create a fuller, more energetic experience. Ultimately it does what it was supposed to do, but afterward you'll be hard-pressed to remember any particular track. As a film score it suffices, but Pinkaew neglects the potential to actually make his film any better with some proper music choices.
As for the acting, that's once again a very divisive affair. The acting is pretty atrocious for the bigger part of the film, with many of the secondary parts seemingly filled by people they pulled off the street. It's actually not uncommon when an Asian production hires a bunch of Westerners, but Tom Yum Goong really takes the cake. That said, the action is what it's all about and as bad as the actors may be, the fighters are absolutely top class. Tony Jaa is truly impressive, which his unreal kicks and fast yet controlled movements. His adversaries are pretty cool too, the capoeira guy in particular deserves a special mention. So yeah, if you want top of the line acting, you'll be left hanging, but if you're watching this for the martial arts there's nothing to complain about.
Expectations are crucial when going into a film like this. Sure enough it's a little lacking in certain departments. The acting is pretty iffy, the soundtrack generic-sounding and the film doesn't look its best when Pinkaew is trying to tell the story. But that's all just a small part of the film. Tom Yum Goong is genre cinema at its purest and the martial arts is clearly the center point of the film. And action-wise, this is one of the best films out there. The action sequences are relentless, imaginative and perfectly executed. And there are plenty of them, once Jaa starts kicking ass there's hardly time for any breathers.
As a martial arts fan, Tom Yum Goong is the kind of movie I love watching. It puts every single baht in making its fight scenes bigger, crazier and more inventive. Because of that the all-round experience may not be up to par, but I think that's a fair price to pay. I can see how this may be a harder pill to swallow if you're not really into martial arts movies, but then this film probably isn't for you. If you're fine with Tom Yum Goong just being one big Tony Jaa action reel though, it's one of the best films the genre has to offer.