After the well documented travails that accompanied the making of this film in which director/actor/action choreographer/producer Tony Jaa seemed to suffer a psychological and financial meltdown mid-production it finally hits the screens with a massive adrenaline driven jolt. This is manna for action junkies – continuous injections of eye opening ferocious poundings that will keep you hard and happy. Other than a throwaway cameo from Jaa’s good luck charm Mum Jokmok, there isn’t a light moment in the film – it is surly, mean and angry. Jaa appears to be discharging whatever inner demons he had with set pieces of brutal physical violence that never pauses for mercy. Yet the physical artistry on display is so breathtakingly astonishing and imaginative that the film never feels exploitive but instead almost becomes a beautiful hymn to the human form, its grace, its lack of fear, its agility and what it is capable of doing.
No doubt Jaa is trying to up the ante here from his two previous films – seemingly challenged to give the viewer even more of what they want and driving himself even harder. Watching this, it is no wonder that he had a mid-film mental pause and needed to refuel. He puts all his physical skills on screen with an astonishingly diverse display of martial arts from all over the world. He is almost rubbing it in, taunting all the other so-called martial art film actors with his ability to master so many forms. He leaves them in the dust. There is a plot here though it is minimal and very much in the tradition of hundreds of Shaw Brothers martial arts films. As a boy (seen through various flashbacks) Tien (Jaa) witnesses his father, a Lord, being betrayed and killed along with Tien’s mother. Tien escapes but is captured by a tribe of slave traders who are easily amused by tossing victims into a crocodile pit and betting on how long they survive. As Tien is fighting for his life, the traders are attacked by the Bandit King and run off. The Bandit King takes an immediate liking to the boy and tosses him a knife and tells him that if he kills the crocodile he lives. Hard love, but Tien is taken under the wing of the Bandit King and is trained in his village in myriad forms of styles of violence – from sword fighting, to wrestling, to muay thai to hopping from moving elephant to moving elephant where one slip would likely mean death. It is a global village of sorts and to paraphrase our new Secretary of State, it takes a village to teach you to kill in 100 different ways. Tien learns quickly.
Once he graduates with honors, Tien decides it is time for some payback. First the slave traders (some drunken kung fu against that giant fellow who has an alarming resemblance to Richard “Jaws” Kiel and an assortment of others) and then on to the people who slaughtered his family. Revenge, pure and simple. It always works in these films. Keep it simple. And the action is a wonderful thing to witness – precise, fast, acrobatic (the fight on the elephant against Dan Chupong will raise the hairs on your arms) and always very vicious. The film smartly throws some great martial art talent against Jaa and his moves are often counterbalanced by his opponent in a dance like revelry of artists who love what they are putting on screen. All the villains are also eccentrically adorned in masks or head gear that simply make them very cool – again in that old fashioned Shaw Brothers manner.
The film only fails in the end – a shockingly sudden end just when you think you have many more broken bones to go – leaving one assuming that there will be a follow up but I have yet to see any such official announcement. It is interesting that Jaa decided to set this film in the past (1400’s if I recall) after his two successful contemporary films. I wonder whether this may hurt its international sales as it in no way resembles the opulence of the recent Chinese martial arts films but is placed in humid disheveled jungle with very little in the way of sets. But at the same time the period setting seems to have set Jaa free from polite constraints and civility – here it is all about exacting a pound of flesh in the most efficient brutal manner possible. If you appreciate this kind of action like I do you just want to curl up and purr as you bite your nails.
My rating for this film: 7.5