[29 August 2011]
BKO: Bangkok Knockout is an interesting film. Interesting because it simultaneously has a lot going for it, and a great many things working against it. BKO is the latest in a long line of high-flying Thai martial arts movies. Produced by Sahamongkol Films and directed by Panna Rittikrai who, aside from being a Thai action legend, served as stunt coordinator for films like Ong-Bak and Chocolate, and was integral in the careers of Tony Jaa, Dan Chupong, and Jija Yanin.
From this genre pedigree, you would be correct to assume that the action sequences in BKO are phenomenal. Not simply the human highlight reel that many of Jaa’s films turn into, BKO is more akin to 2004’s Born to Fight, also directed by Rittikrai, where there were not only epic fight sequences, but a whole world of insane stunts. I seriously hope these young men and women have comprehensive health insurance, because the way they fling themselves around, they’re going to need it.
The action set pieces are truly spectacular. There is a scene where two guys fight while hanging on a fence, a chase that involves three people dangling off of a moving semi-truck, and an epic down-and-dirty battle that involves close to 30 people all fighting at the same time. My favorite has to be the pursuit and fight that takes two characters through the skeletal rafters of an abandoned factory. There’s even a martial arts equivalent of Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films. When the film focuses on what it does best, action, it’s a fast-paced blast.
The problem with BKO is every single thing that is not an action sequence or a fight scene. Everything else, and I mean everything else is complete and total garbage. BKO is an ensemble piece, with nine prominent players. Not only does this juggling act get confusing and leave little time to differentiate between characters, let alone give them all a personality, most of these young actors are primarily stunt performers, and thus their acting leaves much to be desired. Certainly they can kick the living hell out of each other, and are more than willing to put themselves in harm’s way to get a shot, but when it comes to pulling off things like conveying emotion, they’re clearly out of their element.
It doesn’t help matters that the story is jumbled, nonsensical, and fraught with continuity errors. A group of martial artists vie for what they think is the opportunity to do the stunts in a major Hollywood motion picture. They win, and that night they go party in a suitable fashion. The next morning brings a Hangover style revelation that they were drugged, and are now trapped in a closed circuit TV show. In order to save themselves, and each other, they’re forced to fight, so that ridiculously rich foreigners can bet on them. The concept is a little bit Running Man, though it more closely resembles the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vehicle The Condemned, with a few visual and thematic nods to Death Race thrown in for good measure.
You keep thinking there’s going to be some point to the story—something about observers and the observed, or our culture of callous voyeurism taken to the extreme—but there never is and, perhaps most unforgivable of all, BKO takes way too long to get going. Fast forward through the first 35 minutes and you won’t miss anything. The script is confusing and poorly written, and executed on screen with equal incompetence. Rittikrai has a good feel for how a fight scene should be filmed, but nothing else. In dialogue centric scenes characters are often on opposite sides of the frame from shot to shot.
The action scenes are tight, but everything else is sloppy and feels like it was added as an afterthought. One of the bonus features on the DVD illustrates how much of a priority the action was in comparison to everything else. All of the fights and stunts were filmed first, with months of practice, training, and choreography to make them unique and not just your run-of-the-mill action. When all of that was taken care of and in the can, only then did the production go back and stage the story elements. A mysterious love triangle between three of the main characters is explained with a brief, not more than five-second-long, series of flashbacks. That’s how little emphasis BKO places on anything other than action.
Being an over-the-top action-oriented movie, the other notable bonus on the BKO DVD is an obligatory behind-the-scenes feature that is little more than footage of stunts gone wrong and performers getting absolutely wrecked in the process of filming. I find a certain nobility to a profession that constantly puts themselves in danger in order to amuse and entertain, like stuntmen, circus folk, and professional athletes.
If you’re a hardcore fan of martial arts films, especially those centered around insane stunt work, you’ll want to check out BKO: Bangkok Knockout. You’ll have to sit through a great deal of inane chatter, slow-moving plot, and piss-poor storytelling to get there, but once the cinematic adrenalin finally kicks in, there’s a lot to see. The final 25 minutes alone are little more than a full-tilt, all-out action extravaganza, and is well worth the wait.