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“Somtum” has all the potential in the world, but ultimately ends up as kind of a mess.
Nathan Jones (“Tom-Young-Goong”, “The Condemned”) stars as Barney Emerald, a down on his luck Australian giant, who wins third place in a contest. This is one hell of a contest because third place, the bronze medal, is a trip to Thailand. That’s not a bad consolation prize. A life-long loser, Barney thinks his luck has changed. He couldn’t be more wrong. On his first night of vacation he gets drugged, robbed, and left barefoot and shirtless in a foreign country with no money and no passport.
At 6’11 and 360 pounds, Jones is a towering freak of a human being. His life has been nothing if not interesting. At one time he pulled off a string of bank robberies, and was one of Australia’s most wanted men. In prison he became a power lifter, and before a back injury, suffered in an arm wrestling match, he was a promising newcomer on the world strongman scene. Then he had a brief career as a professional wrestler, and now he acts in action movies, usually in bit parts as a tough guy the hero has to fight. In “Somtum”, however, he plays a gentle giant. He’s big, clothes don’t fit him, he snores, children often mistake him for some sort of monster or ghost, he appears comically large riding down the street on a scooter, you know, the usual trials and tribulations of the overly large.
Half naked, wandering the unfamiliar streets of Thailand, Barney runs into a young girl, Katen (Narawat Techarathanaprasert), while she flees from some thugs she ripped off. Even though Barney is enormous, he’s a pussy, and gets thoroughly trounced for trying to help.
Katen is an orphan and a hustler. A pickpocket and petty criminal, she lives with Dokya (Sasisa Jindamanee), a Muay Thai prodigy, and her mother, who runs a local somtum restaurant. Calling it a restaurant is being generous since it is more like a food shanty on the beach. Dokya can handle herself, but her mother hates that she fights, and makes her promise that she won’t, in or out of a ring.
The sisters feel bad for Barney, you know, since they got him beat up and all, and take him in. Barney is like a giant, dopey puppy. Think a Mastiff or Great Dane. He’s huge, but has no idea how big he is, or how much damage he can do. That is, until the girls feed him a plate of somtum. Apparently Barney doesn’t deal well with spicy food. He turns bright red, starts to hallucinate, and goes into an uncontrollable berserker rage, leveling the food shack in the process.
Now they need money to fix the restaurant. Barney is a loser with no friends, so he can’t get anyone back home to send him money. Their next idea is to have him fight in an underground fight club, but he’s just as adept at fighting as he is at everything else. He can’t dance, so he can’t become a stripper. Finally, they decide that Dokya will fight at the fight club, and in order to convince mom, Katen lies to her, telling her it’s a dance contest, while Dokya thinks mom has given her okay to fight.
The story gets convoluted and meanders around from scene to scene for a while. Some bad guys are involved in jewel heist, the fight promoter is crooked, Katen is a conniving little shit who makes every situation worse through lies and deceit. “Somtum” is more of a collection of scenes than a coherent plot. And because of that, most of the movie feels entirely directionless.
Once you get towards the middle of the movie there is more action throw into the mix, but it takes 40 minutes or so to arrive at this point. Even though there are guns and criminals present, “Somtum” is still obviously aimed at a younger audience. The fight scenes are sound, but, until the climactic fight, most of them belong to the same comic, slapstick family that you get in the less serious Jackie Chan movies.
Dokya’s sequences are solid, but Jindamanee is a junior national Muay Thai champ, so she can actually fight her ass off. At one point she has to fight a grown man in the ring and beats him down even though he cheats. Dan Chupong (“Ong-Bak 1, 2, and 3”) shows up for like five minutes, but he’s basically just in the movie to have one fight, which is good, but then he disappears from the narrative.
Aside from those two instances, the rest of the fights try way too hard to be funny, like one that features an excessive amount of papayas. And even in Chupong’s fight, when a bad guy grabs a knife, every jab or thrust finds a way to slice vegetables or dice onions like they’re preparing dinner. The forced attempts at comic relief get old quick.
At the end, Barney finally figures out how to fight, and in the sprawling battle he has with three other giants, they entirely dismantle an entire airplane. Jones is good at being enormous and frightening, and these moments are his best in the film. It’s a lot to ask of him to carry a whole movie sicne his acting chops are questionable, and his career will probably be best served by sticking to parts like his role in “Tom-Young-Goong”, where he mostly has to flex, yell, and fight. That’s where he is at his peak, and he could have a long and prosperous run in action movies. They always need another big, scary guy.
There are some good moment in “Somtum”, but overall the story lacks focus and drive, the plot is too jumbled, and the comedy is forced and not all that funny.
Nontakorn Taweesuke (director)
CAST: Dan Chupong … Inspector Lee
Sasisa Jindamanee … Dokya
Nathan Jones … Barney Emerald
Conan Stevens … Jo Jo
Nawarat Techarathanaprasert … Katen
Philippe Wanet … Ryan