The Protector (2005)
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Writers: Prachya Pinkaew, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, Napalee, Piyaros Thongdee, and Joe Wannapin
Starring: Tony Jaa, Nathan Jones, Petchtai Wongkamlao, and Jon Foo

The Plot: Kham (Tony Jaa) is the last of a long line of guards who look after the King of Thailand’s war elephants. Growing up with these elephants, he has formed an incredibly tight bond with the animals. So, when his prized elephant is stolen by an evil British parliament member, he decides to follow a trail that leads him to Sidney, Australia. As a stranger in a strange land, Kham finds himself quickly making enemies – but he remains determined to find this elephant and bring it safely back to Thailand. In order to accomplish this near-impossible feat, he is going to have to fight his way through the Australian underworld – one thug at a time.

The Review
Where did it all go wrong? After the release of Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, the new action “God” Tony Jaa was sitting on top of the world. He was constantly referred to as the new Jackie Chan, and after seeing his impressive debut, it wasn’t hard to believe such praise. The world had seldom seen such stiff martial arts choreography, and with this film Thailand was officially put on the map. The Protector was the followup title that cemented Jaa’s legacy, but soon after this feature, Jaa dropped out of the wesern limelight. While he filmed Ong Bak 2, which turned into Ong Bak 2 and 3, the young star had a mental breakdown of sorts. Now, Jaa has almost become a joke within the Asian film community. He has become the posterboy for someone achieving too much success when they truly aren’t prepared for their change in status and life. However, despite his irregular behavior, he still left behind multiple films that are more than worthy of exploring. The Protector is a film that never “grabbed me” back when it was first released. In fact, this writing marks the first time that I have ever actually sat down and finished the entire film. The Protector is a film that features segments that are so famous that they were even spoofed in an episode of Robot Chicken, and it is a title that has certainly developed a bit of mainstream popularity over the years – but is it worthy?

Since the release of The Protector and Ong Bak, Southeast Asia has seen multiple artists step up to fill the shoes that Tony Jaa left behind. Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais are but one pair that has captivated the thoughts and minds of martial art film fans, but JeeJa Yanin from Thailand has also stepped up and made a few noticeable films. As of this writing, both she and Jaa are actually supposed to star alongside one another in a sequel to The Protector. Yet, it was in this film where Jaa and Prachya Pinkaew were able to solidify their particular brand of martial arts in a way that would highly influence many others within subsequent years. Taking a cue from Jackie Chan’s best work, much of what makes The Protector so successful is the unbelievable stunt work found in the film. The stuntmen work in the true Hong Kong tradition, which basically means that they are going to take some extremely brutal knocks during the course of the film. Even the most basic scenes of choreography are spiced up by the addition of several bumps that require stuntmen to place themselves in extremely dangerous and painful situations. Stuntmen are kicked out of the air during regular fight scenes, but little care is given to the personal safety of these men who apparently land harshly on their necks and backs.

As an action spectacle, The Protector is hard to beat. However, much like Ong Bak, if you judge the film under the standards of being a regular movie, it does teeter towards failure. The drama and the narrative is far from being anything that will draw audiences in. Featuring a plot that both meanders at times and also repeats much of the same genre-film pastiches that we have all seen a million times, this one doesn’t leave a lot to write home about. The basic plot for the story is actually quite similar to Ong Bak. The plot should sound familiar: a smalltown Thai kid is sent off into the world to return a prized possession to his village. The only difference is that in Ong Bak we were talking about a material item, and this time Jaa is out in search of an elephant – which, on the surface, sounds like a silly plot synopsis, but it is effectively played very straight. Along the way he will become embroiled in a series of crazy events that become convoluted and ridiculous along the way. Is it interesting? Kinda, but nothing spectacular. The foreign setting doesn’t help with things, since the Thai view of Australia is, to me personally, far less intriguing than getting to see Thailand itself.

At just around the forty minute mark, The Proector hits its most deliriously creative note. In a sequence that will not be forgotten anytime soon, we watch as Tony Jaa travels up a very large spiraling staircase and then dispatches of goon-after-goon, all while the camera follows him without making one cut. For the action genre, this sequence is akin to the long opening shot from A Touch fo Evil. The camera flows through the corridors while Jaa and his stuntmen all work in a seamless fashion to choreograph some of the most brutal action within the movie – and they do all of this without the safety net of editing. Everything must be done correctly, and they have only one take to do it. Men are thrown off of three story high balconies, the camera pans and travels around rooms while the filmmakers cleverly hide the setups that are taking place just outside of frame in order to protect the stuntmen and crew… It plays out like a brilliant magic act, and it truly does “make the movie.” However, this film isn’t done yet. There’s still half of a movie to go! With numerous fight sequences ahead, the question becomes “did the movie blow its wad too early, or can it make on the promise of that one utterly brilliant sequence?”

Even after years of initially watching the movie, I still find myself utterly conflicted by The Protector. The initial plot is relatively engaging. There are a few bright spots within the story that manage to keep audiences hooked. There’s some amazing fight choreography. Absolutely world class stuff is displayed during this film, and the stunt crew had to go through hell while filming it. So, why do I find myself feeling so conflicted about this feature? Well, after the initial impact of this being a Tony Jaa joint set in Australia, it loses a lot of steam. Once the new factor fades away, this is just a bland retelling of Ong Bak, but without the fresh attitude or sense of originality. That is something that certainly hurts the movie and prevents it from being a movie that I recommend without hesitation. Still, for all of the detriments against the movie, there are numerous other reasons why I tend to say that I am now a fan of the film.

The Conclusion
The Protector has some errors along the way. It is far from being a perfect movie, and it doesn’t reach the echelon of being an instant classic. Still, this is an incredibly fun ride for audiences who are willing to pay for a ticket. Despite the story being nonsense and the somewhat meandering second half of the film, I give The Protector a four out of five. It was almost a three, but ultimately I believe that the action saves this one. Even if it is just a big dumb action movie, it does it better than 90% of the competitors.