“The Protector 2” (2013)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Protector 2" poster

 

Like Stephen Chow, Tony Jaa once seemed poised on the brink of action cinema legend. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior truly lived up to its badass reputation, signaling the arrival of a martial artist who would take the daring choreography popularized by Jackie Chan to a much grittier level. But after that film’s two follow-ups met with mixed receptions, Jaa fell off the radar for a bit, having resurfaced only recently. Part of the man’s comeback tour is The Protector 2, the sequel to a 2005 film that almost made up for its faults with a handful of incredible fight scenes. But there’s nothing awe-inspiring about this beast, which embellishes itself with unbelievably amateurish effects that soften the blow of some otherwise solid stunt work in a huge way. With any edges having been almost totally sanded off, The Protector 2 looks more like a cheap knock-off of a property that once held promise than a successor to the legacy.

After the first movie’s events, you’d think that people would’ve realized that rural villager Kham (Jaa) and his elephant Khon just want to be left alone. But as with Liam Neeson and his family, baddies can’t help but barge into their peaceful lives and raise a ruckus. That’s right, another ‘phant-napping has taken place, with Kham tearing off after the perpetrators in hot pursuit. This time, however, the situation is a tad more complicated, as Kham’s search for his ten-ton amigo leads him directly into a trap that brands him the top suspect in a businessman’s murder. Little does our hero know that he’s being manipulated by L.C. (RZA), a shadowy figure who keeps a team of the world’s finest fighters at his beck and call. The fiend has something sinister in store for both Kham and his pachyderm pal, forcing our guy to strike back with a barrage of beatings as unrelenting as his attitude.

For a vehicle for a star whose earliest pictures boasted their realism, The Protector 2 can’t even sell me on Tony Jaa being in the same rooms it claims he’s in. The special effects here aren’t merely bad; they’re mystifyingly inept, unable to support the mildest hint of illusion. Sure, the trickery in kung-fu flicks of yore could look pretty rough, but even with wires present, you could still tell some dudes were actually fighting each other. However, The Protector 2 packs so much godawful green-screening up its sleeve, you wonder why the production crew even bothered with the more fantastic stunts, since it’d be cheaper to just scrap them completely. It’s not as if sequences like Kham being chased down by a motocross gang or clobbering thugs in a room entirely on fire couldn’t have been scaled down and still looked cool, or that Jaa hadn’t already displayed physical chops so impressive, no computer-assisted flourishes were required. But time and again (and often in the middle of a beatdown that’s just getting good, at that), the horrid effects read their ugly heads, taking your mind off of the action and robbing it of its punch (no pun intended…okay, maybe a little).

I’d say that The Protector 2‘s story was a victim of these forces as well, but this plot screws the pooch on its own accord. It’s actually pretty amusing that it uses more or less the same hook as the first flick (what else would the sequel to a movie best known for being about a stolen elephant revolve around than another damn stolen elephant?), but in upping the stakes and building upon the premise, things get really confusing, really fast. The reason why L.C. covets Khon is sensible enough, but as for what the guy actually does for a living, why he maintains what’s basically a martial arts harem, and why he tries to kill Kham immediately after recruiting him for said menagerie? That’s anyone’s guess. All I know is that the script takes all this, adds some political intrigue, sprinkles in a pair of revenge-seeking sisters, and uses the ensuing narrative goop to bury its actors’ talents. At least the cast tries as hard as they can to give you something worth watching, as Jaa proves he’s still in prime posterior-pounding form, and — in arguably his most formidable role yet — RZA looking like he could actually take on the Thai titan in a brawl.

There are those who’ll be more forgiving towards The Protector 2 than I am, and in all fairness, it’s not an abject failure. Whenever the filmmakers can wrench the computer’s grubby paws away from the action, the fights can be mighty intense, captured in a straight-laced light that rejects the goofiness favored by flicks like This Girl Is Badass. But that part of me that’s still biding my time until the real heir to the Ong-Bak throne arrives was left unimpressed by The Protector 2, the sort of misguided follow-up that one laughs at rather than with.

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