The story is little different from “Ong-bak,” with Jaa once again cast as a simple, rural hero named Kham who must journey to the big bad urban jungle and retrieve a treasured item from the clutches of thugs, gangsters and a slew of other nasties just begging for a bone-crushing. The emotional investment this time, however, is more substantial; for it's not a simple religious artifact that Jaa must retrieve but a baby elephant and its father, snatched by gangsters (who previously killed the mother) and smuggled to Australia. For Kham, the offense also has profound cultural implications -- he is the latest in a long line of so-called Protectors, an ancient caste whose role it has always been to protect the royal elephants.
Once Kham makes it to Sydney, he uncovers the usual assortment of drug dealers, crooked cops and gangsters, along with the obligatory underappreciated good cop and girl-with-a-conscience who help the fish-out-of-water Kham navigate the necessary channels to recover his beloved pachyderms. The Weinstein edit conveniently excises any added nuance and character development, leaving only a series of disjointed transitions and some astonishing action sequences. Fortunately, the brilliance of those surviving sequences is so thrilling, so invigorating, that the film still works. If anything, they only draw attention to the fact that the film's most glaring failures are the result of American fumbling and not Thai filmmaking.
Jaa also gets to flex some modest acting chops here: Where his previous films have required him to do little more than scowl, “The Protector” gives him occasion to both laugh and cry as well. More importantly, the picture lets him display even more physical prowess than audiences have seen previously, including a five-minute mini-tribute to Bruce Lee's “Game of Death” (impressively choreographed by Jaa and Panna Rittikrai) in which Jaa, in a single uninterrupted take, works his way up a multi-level nightclub, leaving a trail of crushed, busted and shattered bodies in his wake. An even more staggering brawl near the end may well hold the all-time record for bone-snapping sound effects in movie history.
Ironically, the actor to whom Jaa is most often compared, Jackie Chan, also made a film called “The Protector” which, in 1985, was likewise so mangled by director James Glickenhaus that Chan himself later reedited a superior version about a year later. While this “Protector,” which bears no similarity to the Chan film apart from the title, is far more satisfying in its truncated edition, fans hoping to get a gander at the original cut may want to seek it out on import DVD since the Weinsteins have shown no affinity for including multiple versions on their domestic DVD releases of such films.
As usual stock characters abound to round out the cast -- Jin Xing as dragon lady Madame Rose, JohnnyTri Nguyen doing his best Yu Rong Guang impression as a sneering thug and a host of clueless (and a few grotesquely oversized) Caucasians -- but Jaa and Pinkaew clearly know just how far they can and can't push the parameters of the genre. If only the Weinsteins knew as well. Starring Tony Jaa, Phetthai Wongkhamlao, Bongkod Kongmalai, Jin Xing, Nathan B. Jones, JohnnyTri Nguyen, Sotorn Rungruaeng, Yoyo and Singha. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Written by Napalee, Piyaros Thongdee, Joe Wannapin, and Kongdej Jaturanrasmee. Produced by Prachya Pinkaew and Sukanya Vongsthapat. A Weinstein release. Martial arts/action. English and Thai-language; subtitled. Rated R for pervasive strong violence and some sexual content. Running time: 83 min.