Muay Thai expert and martial arts star Tony Jaa returns with “Tom Yum Goong 2” (a.k.a. “The Protector 2” or “Warrior King 2”, depending on the territory), the follow up to his highly popular elephant defending 2005 hit. The film sees him reteaming with director Prachya Pinkaew and action choreographer Panna Rittikrai, who he worked with on the original, as well as “Ong Bak” and more. As expected from a sequel, the film sticks to the concept of its predecessor and, for better or worse, takes things up several notches, with a bigger budget, 3D effects and even crazier large scale action scenes.
Jaa again plays Kham, the film opening with him living a peaceful life in the countryside and teaching young kids martial arts while taking care of his beloved elephant Khon, a sacred beast he is sworn to protect. After Khon is snatched again and Kham is framed for the murder of an elephant owner, he’s forced to go on the run, pursued by the police and the twin nieces of the dead man (“Chocolate” sensation Jija Yanin and Teerada Kittisiriprasert, who also worked on stunts for Prachya Pinkaew’s “The Kick”). It’s all part of a bizarre master plan by an American criminal kingpin called LC (rapper and “The Man with the Iron Fists” helmer RZA), who sends a team of top assassins and kung fu killers after Kham.
Tony Jaa’s career is at an interesting stage, and though he’s been regarded by many as one of the most exciting martial arts stars on screen, he’s never really managed to truly capitalise on his many early successes. Whether this has been down to reported behind the scenes contractual and personal issues, including his stint in a monastery, is debatable, though it’s testament to his appeal that despite some quiet wilderness years, he’s still being linked with high profile roles in the likes of “The Raid 3”, “SPL 2” and various Hollywood projects. Clearly, Jaa is still a very popular and indeed bankable figure, and so it’s no surprise that he would return to one of his signature franchises in an effort to reclaim his position – and with “Tom Yum Goong” having been memorable in its own right, the announcement of a sequel was by no means unwelcome.
The main thing to bear in mind when approaching “Tom Yum Goong 2” is not to expect gritty, old school martial arts, as it’s first and foremost a big, over the top action juggernaut, played mainly for spectacle and popcorn thrills. Styling itself on some of Jackie Chan’s more ambitious (and sillier) outings, the film revolves almost entirely around its set pieces and money shots, Prachya Pinkaew pulling out all the stops and throwing a dizzying variety of stunts at the screen.
The film is pretty much non-stop action, and moves along at a brisk and occasionally exciting pace, with some real imagination having clearly gone into its choreography and design. In general this cavalier approach works well, and the film serves up some very creative fight scenes and fairly mind-blowing effects-aided sequences, benefitting from not taking itself too seriously. There’s a great deal of fun to be had for viewers willing to switch off and go with the flow, and Jaa and Pinkaew again prove a winning team when it comes to a far-out knockabout.
On the downside, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated by the fact that despite the genre talent onscreen, the film doesn’t really impress when it comes to martial arts. Along with Jaa himself, Pinkaew also has at his disposal an exciting line-up including the awesome Jija Yanin and Marrese Crump, and though all three do get the chance to show off their considerable skills, the film never really stretches itself or commits to delivering the kind of bone-crunching combat that a lot of fans will likely be expecting. Instead, Pinkaew spends a lot of the running time on motorbike chases and improbable explosions, and while this is for the most part acceptable, the CGI is frequently shabby, rendering a few key moments rather ludicrous – not that this in itself is necessarily a bad thing, and the film scores highly when it comes to unintentional laughs.
The same is true when it comes to the supporting cast, and though Petchtai Wongkamlao is surprisingly effective as comic relief, the majority of the players have one-note roles at best and are generally offered up as gimmicky figures, notably gorgeous actress Rhatha Phongam (“Only God Forgives”). This is kind of a shame, as Jaa himself isn’t given too much to do other than fight, run and sweat. Given that Kham isn’t exactly a substantial protagonist, the film definitely could have done with at least a couple of less sketchy characters to identify with or root for. The exception to this is RZA, who absolutely steals the film and every scene he turns up in, thanks to a truly awful, whacked-out performance as LC. It’s hard to really describe just how much he chews the scenery here, though suffice to say his turn is worth its weight in entertainment gold.
This to a large extent sums up “Tom Yum Goong 2” as a whole, as while unlikely to be accused of actually being good, it’s a wildly enjoyable hour and forty minutes of bold, flashy and brash action madness. Whether or not it manages to re-establish Tony Jaa as one of martial arts cinema’s top draws remains to be seen, though it’s certainly enough to keep him in the good graces of his fanbase.
Prachya Pinkaew (director) / Eakasit Thairatana (screenplay)
CAST: Tony Jaa … Kham
RZA … LC
Petchtai Wongkamlao … Mark
JeeJa Yanin … Ping Ping
Marrese Crump … No. 2
Yayaying Rhatha Phongam … No. 20