Thailand’s DIY martial artist Tony Jaa keeps sound-effects artists busy whapping chairs and breaking bamboo as he punches, kicks and knees his way through The Protector.
The sound must be loud to drown out the thudding idea that Jaa is the next Jackie Chan.
It’s almost laughable, how hard Hollywood is pushing that notion; originally named after a spicy Thai soup, Jaa’s 2005 film now has the same title as Chan’s own failed breakthrough attempt in 1985. Jaa helps little with a low bit where he employs a Chan look-alike to suggest a passed torch.
Chan might be using that flame for light to fill out AARP paperwork pretty soon, but his easy charm comes through even when not grappling with villains. He’d rather run away than run down, as Chan is Buster Keaton in a street fight and always seems like the underdog, even when he’s not.
Jaa’s sourpuss personality is like a cornered animal with readied claws and fangs. He’s no less a charisma-free machine of brute force than the increasingly ’roided-up, goalpost-tall behemoths he faces in The Protector. Jaa makes Steven Seagal look restrained with all the arms he snaps over his shoulder and he’s impressive only for his elaborate, impressive action choreography.
Any plot The Protector had ended up in the U.S. editing room’s trash can, but what matters is that Jaa breaks for elephants. Frequent, passionate demands to know where the elephants are, and that people leave them be, lead to the classic line, “You killed my father, and stole my elephants!”
Jaa’s Kham is the latest in a long line of warriors tasked to guard these animals, revered by Thai kings for their importance in wars past. Por Yai and Kohrn are his charges, but gangsters nab them and rub out Dad in the middle of a visit to the big city. The trail takes Kham to Sydney, Australia, where he battles a crime syndicate that, among its transgressions, grills up endangered species.
Keeping Por Yai and Kohrn off the menu means bumping heads with the syndicate’s Lady MacBeth-like leader, her Aussie lieutenant (who looks like Ted McGinley from Married … With Children), a dreadlocked dance-fighter with the word “pray” branded on his pecs and a gang of extreme sports enthusiasts wielding fluorescent lights as weapons. Those who hadn’t already guessed now know The Protector is fearless with immensely entertaining, unintentional humor.
Fending off bikers and rollerbladers is the only scene in which Jaa even attempts matching Chan’s limber-legged grace. Just how long that ATV has been lying in wait to strike Kham isn’t answered, but his wall-scaling evasion of it is a delight to watch. Ditto for Kham’s mow-down stalk through a restaurant’s six-level “back room” as an unbroken take serving up many broken bones.
The movie also plays by genre rules of laughably awful filmmaking more fun than the film itself.
It’s a rarity to see misspelled subtitles and mismatched dubbing. Settings and visual effects are swiped from Jet Li movies and the picture is smudged to the point of distraction. That’s just the start. Shots dissolve to suggest elephant breeding. A minor car crash gets five-camera coverage. Two computer-animated interludes showing elephants in battles past resemble a bad commercial for the Marines. There’s even an MTV-style booty-jam striptease in a mud bath to behold.
None of this is any less silly or poorly made than, say, the out-of-control hovercraft scene in Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx. But that film’s lightness and star presence is missing here. No one can do that cool running knee drop like Jaa, but he’d better start flexing his smiling muscles more.