The Joy of Jaa

The Thai martial artist returns in The Protector.

As a true connoisseur neither of pornography nor of martial arts movies, I must say that, in both genres, I prefer the ones that at least pretend to have some sort of story. The pizza guy can’t just ring the doorbell and start getting it on with the horny housewife; they have to embark on some sort of adventure first, or at least share the pizza he’s delivering. And the iron-limbed, brick-breaking martial-arts hero can’t just go around whaling on random aggressors; he has to have a righteous purpose behind his actions, preferably involving a woman’s honor or the spirits of his ancestors. Not, of course, that these thin premises make the sex or action scenes any more plausible. It’s just more fun when you have to locate the seams between the movie’s ostensible excuse for existing and its true raison d’être: the crashing of body against body, the meeting of immobile object and unstoppable force.

I can’t imagine a more immobile object than an elephant or a more unstoppable force than Tony Jaa, the 30-year-old master of an art called Muay Thai who came to international attention with Ong-bak (made in 2003 and released in the United States last year). The Protector, Jaa’s second collaboration with director Prachya Pinkaew, brings Jaa and elephants together, with results whose success depends on your interest in both. In Ong Bak, Jaa’s character left his rural Thai village to seek the stolen head of a sacred idol in Bangkok. In The Protector, he leaves it to go to Sydney to rescue two stolen elephants, one full-grown, one still a baby, who are sacred to his family.

After providing Jaa’s character, Kham, with a motive everyone can feel good about—who wouldn’t want to protect a sweet baby elephant from glowering meanies?—The Protector can go about its business of providing Tony Jaa with elaborate settings in which to crush his enemies’ heads with his elbows, fly above them in multiple somersaults, and hurl his seemingly indestructible body at everything from roadside billboards to trash-talking wrestlers to the crime kingpin Madame Rose (played by the Chinese actress Xing Jing, a male-to-female transsexual). He also has two memorable encounters, one of them inside a burning Buddhist temple, with an Australian behemoth named Nathan Jones, who’s becoming international cinema’s go-to large man (he played the giant Brad Pitt’s Achilles defeated in the opening scene of Troy). All of this is done without any wires, tricks, or special effects whatsoever: That’s really Tony sliding under that truck and hanging from that helicopter.

Unlike Jackie Chan’s, Jaa’s fight choreography (created with stuntman and action director Panna Rittikrai) doesn’t have a lot of wit to it. Jaa’s Muay Thai style tends more toward straight-ahead, poker-faced ass-whomping, though some scenes do earn a laugh from their sheer over-the-top scale—as when Kham single-handedly leaves an entire roomful of men writhing on the floor, clutching their wounds. If Chan (who has a cameo in The Protector) seems made of rubber, with the face of a melancholic clown, Jaa is pure steel, with the face of a stubborn country boy.

The Protector also reteams Jaa with his sidekick from Ong-bak, Petchtai Wongkamlao, a stout, craggy comic actor who’s sort of the Thai Edward G. Robinson. Wongkamlao plays Mark, a Thai cop working in Sydney, who first arrests Kham on false suspicion of murder, then winds up helping him recover the kidnapped pachyderms.

In truth, only hard-core martial-arts fans will be able to keep from squirming in their seats with boredom through at least some parts of this 82-minute kablammo-fest. But there is one sequence that’s cinematically, as well as physically, spectacular. When Kham and Mark bust into a four-story Thai nightclub that’s also a brothel, a gangsters’ hideout, and a restaurant specializing in endangered species (cut to a fat white guy swallowing a live scorpion), a Steadicam follows Jaa’s progress up the steps as he kicks, head-butts, and claws his way to his beloved baby elephant. The sequence is filmed as one continuous four-minute shot, and the balletic choreography of both camera and bodies is something to behold. The moment when Jaa (whose family keeps pet elephants in real life!) finally buries his face in his little gray friend’s fuzzy head is the closest The Protector ever comes to having a character-driven scene. But when you’ve got a male lead who can break heads like Tony Jaa, a little bit of story line goes a long way.