As convoluted, improbable, and questionably scripted as “Tom Yum Goong” is (and there’s little doubt it’s all those things), there’s a roughly 10-minute sequence near the hour mark where Kham (Tony Jaa) makes his way through an elaborate building that serves as the bad guys’ ultimate lair. A spiral monstrosity that extends upward to a final floor that holds a terrible secret, the entire sequence is shot by director Prachya Pinkaew in one long, continuous take without a single cut or edit. It’s a marvelous example of filmmaking, and is one of many things that make “Tom Yum Goong” as good as you thought it would be. Bigger, tougher, louder, and more elaborate seems to be the mantra, and oh my do the filmmakers, from the director to its star to the army faceless stuntmen, take it to heart.
As with “Ong Bak”, Jaa and Pinkaew’s last collaboration, their sophomore effort begins with the theft of something valuable (in this case, an elephant), that sends country bumpkin Kham (Tony Jaa) to Sydney, Australia on a mission of retrieval, revenge, and major ass-kicking, and not necessarily in that order. Down Under, our Thai country boy runs afoul of the Chinese mob, which is in cahoots with Vietnamese toughs led by the high-kicking Johnny (Johnny Nguyen). Fortunately for our non-English speaking hero, Kham stumbles across assistance from local beat cop Mark (Mum Jokmok, “The Bodyguard”). The duo’s search leads them to the duplicitous Madam Rose (Xing Jing), who is plotting a violent restructuring of the Sydney criminal underworld.
Although written to be more complicated than it really is, the script for “Tom Yum Goong” is, not surprisingly, a secondary notion that, once the fists start flying, needn’t really be of a concern. For much of its first hour, co-writer/director Prachya Pinkaew does what he can to convince himself that he’s making a true effort to tell a compelling story, in particular the plight of Thai expatriates being exploited by the Sydney underworld. But of course all that good intention goes right out the window by the hour mark, and Pinkaew wisely shelves the script to let star Tony Jaa stop running and let him do a lot of kicking, punching, and more kicking.
Which brings us to the film’s action sequences, of which there are a lot. Not only that, but they’re more elaborate, longer, and has more of the bone-crunching goodness one is used to from a film featuring martial arts choreography by star Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai (“Born to Fight”). The 10-minute, uncut single-shot sequence previously mentioned is the definite highlight, but coming in a close second is a fight toward the end when Kham takes on a room full of henchmen. When all is said and done, the bodies have piled up to a ridiculous degree. Unlike “Ong Bak”, which had Jaa fighting a series of faceless thugs, “Tom Yum Goong” offers up a number of fearsome fighters for our hero to match up against. There’s a swordsman, a Caribbean fighter who uses Capoeira, and a muscle-bound behemoth. And not just one hulking brute, but four. Plus, happy-go-lucky criminal Johnny isn’t a shabby fighter himself.
Besides the action, there are some unintentionally funny parts of “Tom Yum Goong” to chuckle over, mostly involving the film’s bad attempts at English. Not only is Jokmok’s Australian cop barely capable of stringing two coherent English words together, but the film keeps featuring a Chinese newscaster who makes Jokmok look like a professional English instructor by comparison. Couldn’t the filmmakers have found someone who was Asian and could speak English for the newscaster role? This isn’t exactly a major role, so it’s perplexing that they would go to such great lengths to hire someone who is apparently reciting her lines phonetically. But perhaps it’s unfair to pick on the non-English speakers, because for whatever reason, even the Caucasian actors in the movie seem to have trouble with the English language!
But I digress. It’s not as if anyone will be picking up “Tom Yum Goong” for English lessons, or to get pointers on the fine art of screenwriting. The action is the thing, and if that’s also your thing, then you’ve come to the right place. The main question people will undoubtedly be asking is this: Is “Tom Yum Goong” better, or on par with “Ong Bak”? The answer is a little tricky. Yes, the action is better, the choreography more in-depth and complex; but No, for the simple reason that “Ong Bak” came first, and we already know what Jaa can do so the novelty of seeing a thin, Thai guy crack bones with one powerful strike no longer exists.
“Tom Yum Goong” is very much an open product, one of those purchases without a catch-22. It doesn’t have a very complex story, and although Pinkaew and fellow screenwriter Kongdej Jaturanrasamee (try saying that name out loud!) puts up a faÃ§ade of a deep story with social significance, it’s really just about a Thai guy who goes after the folks who stole his elephant. And along the way he destroys most of Sydney and puts the Australian Stuntman’s Union out of business. If you know the name Tony Jaa, then you won’t be expecting “Sense and Sensibilities”; and because of the lowered expectations when it comes to story, but high anticipation of the action, “Tom Yum Goong” is an unqualified success.
Prachya Pinkaew (director) / Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, Prachya Pinkaew (screenplay)
CAST: Tony Jaa …. Kham
Mum Jokmok …. Inspector Mark
Xing Jing …. Madam Rose
Johnny Nguyen …. Johnny
Nathan Jones …. TK
Bongkoj Khongmalai …. Pla
David Asavanond …. Rick