Discrete in their aesthetics and tempos, the fight scenes do comprise a certain characterization, though not in usual sense.
You see, in Muay Boran there is a lot of worshiping of things that are holy, and so there is holiness in the elephant. Yet the film shows what some bad people will do to the elephant and how far they will go to do it.
--Tony Jaa, Kung Fu Magazine
All he wants is his elephant. The youthful, naïve, and very earnest warrior Kham (Tony Jaa) has been raised by his father (Sotorn Rungruaeng) to respect the old ways and values, including the belief that elephants embody nobility and power, and as such, must be respected and protected. To the end of acting on that respect, Kham has been trained in the Muay Boran martial arts, in order that he might literally protect the elephants.
Thus the Western, Weinstein-selected title, The Protector, for Jaa's second film, Tom yum goong. While this newest import, "presented by Quentin Tarantino," is chucky full of loudly-bone-breaking action, it's also oddly incomplete (owing, perhaps, to the 25 or so minutes that have been trimmed from the U.S. release). Little Kham (Nutdanai Kong) first appears in a sunny field with schoolbook bag and gigantic tusk pushing into the frame. A brief montage shows the boy, his dad, and their father-and-son elephants, Por Yai and Kohrn, as one happy family, sweetly at ease with each other, trusting and serene in the way that signals imminent danger in the movies.
Sure enough, the childhood montage gives way to well-muscled but still tranquil Jaa's appearance as the grown up Kham, compliant with his dad's decision to take Por Yai to be assessed by the royal elephant assessor. The result of this inspection is not quite clear: the animal is judged perfect and so, suitable for the king, but when the judge suggests the elephant is coming with him, Kham's dad resists, inexplicably. And when he resists, the gangsters step in, shooting the old man in the chest and stealing both elephants, even as Kham does his best to run them down through a crowded marketplace and then -- again inexplicably -- in a set of speedboats. (The boats as a mobile "setting" do allow for Jaa to practice some martial arts across water, exhibiting the stunning athleticism for which he's well known.) Alas, Kham loses track of the elephants and the thieves. And oh yes, his dad looked to be dead back at the assessment station.
At this point The Protector turns quickly into another version of Jaa's first film, Ong Bak: Thai Warrior (and films starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, his self-acknowledged movie star models), in that he sets out on a retrieval mission. This time, he heads to Sydney, where villains are accumulating exotic animals to cook and eat (this being just one of their several illicit, lucrative activities); one gangster in particular, the odious Madame Rose (Xing Jing, a famous transsexual star in Thailand), has her eye on the elephants, believing, like Kham, that the magnificent creatures might bestow (or at least represent convincingly) great power.
But while Madame Rose means to use her power selfishly, Kham, of course, only wants to restore Por Yai and Kohrn to their home, to protect them from exploitation by unsavory sorts like Rose. (She's so unsavory that when she learns she's not lined up to inherit the family business because she's female, she starts poisoning her male cousins, so they gag and fall out... at the dinner table.) Being a country boy outsider, Kham runs into trouble in the Big City, as well as a new friend in the form of a sympathetic Thai-born cop, Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao). As soon as he sees Kham in a fight with one of the gangsters, Mark intuits that the youth is not to blame, that he's in Australia for some higher purpose, and that he (Mark) needs to help him. And so he proceeds to pop up occasionally, with gun in hand, when Kham's remarkable fighting skills don't quite hold off the lethal firepower wielded by tight-pantsed, slick-haired gangster Johnny (Johnny Tri Nguyen).
While the logic of the film is surely lax, the effect hardly suffers for it. Essentially, The Protector is one fight scene after another, each a set piece in a location that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the scenes that come before or after. As such, the fight scenes are sensational, whether drawn directly from previous martial arts films and silent comedies or imagining new ways to defy gravity and bend bodies backwards. Jaa dives in and out of train cars and trucks in a warehouse, running up walls and flipping and spinning with elegant speed and in thrilling slow motion, all real (non-wired) action stunts, the sort that Jackie Chan used to break real bones doing.
Discrete in their aesthetics and tempos, the fight scenes do comprise a certain characterization, though not in usual sense. It's not as if Kham changes or matures, or even that rivals learn lessons (mostly, they succumb). The violence escalates, as does Kham's frustration and rage (when he learns yet another family member has been killed, he is beside himself with grief, working through it by breaking every limb and neck that comes his way (these in a throng of black-suited thugs who just keep coming and falling, and falling again).
All of the fight scenes involve impressive choreography and staging, though Kham's journey through a whorehouse (leading to a restaurant upstairs, filled with sleazy exotic-creature-chomping diners) is already justly famous. This owes to the four or so minute take as much as the fight moves. Nattawut Kittikhun's handheld camera follows Kham as he climbs six sets of stairs, at each landing finding new opponents. Sometimes the focus is close on Kham's face or body, but at others, it hangs back, waiting. You're left to anticipate a body crashing through a balcony railing or wall, the distance and pause tantalizing. With the action suddenly secondary, time, so oddly suspended, becomes mesmerizing, not quite abstract, but full of promise. And then, the crash or the flip or the smash of bodies once again, as the action resumes, inexorable.