In the world of martial arts cinema, it’s often interesting to compare the differing styles of face breakage displayed via the same opponents that may have shared when dealing out lightening quick, fist-related justice. Take Nathan Jones for example, the 6 foot 11 inch slab of immovable Australian gristle that’s faced down a fair few of the elite guard of modern day martial arts cinema and who’s matched their nimble prowess with the awe-inspiring strength of a testosterone injected battering ram. In First Strike back in 1996, Jackie Chan employs his trademark fleet of foot to stay at arms length, choosing to comically flee rather than fight, whereas in 2006’s The Fearless, Jet Li counteracts those bludgeoning fists with his graceful wire fighting to gain the win.
Then there’s Tony Jaa…
When presented with this mountainous human roadblock, Jaa simply runs at him at full speed, leaps his own body height and drives both knees directly into his face – which brings us nicely to 2005’s Warrior King (aka. The Protector), Tony Jaa’s follow up to his impressive debut Ong-Bak, which was a thinly veiled yet hugely impactful showcase for Muay Thai and it’s hard hitting star.
Kham comes from a family line of guards who would protect their rulers war-elephants during times of battle and such, has forged a fierce bond with his father’s two pachyderms, Por Yai and his infant Kohrn but one day someone makes the hideously bad mistake of poaching the beloved animals and smuggling them over to Australia to be served up in an underground restaurant that deals in protected animals. I say it’s a hideously bad mistake because Kham is a one man, Muay Thai wrecking machine and he bops over to the land down under kitted out in a distracting neckerchief and denim jacket combo and stats aimlessly wandering the streets looking for elephants – I said he was a martial arts beast, I didn’t say he was Sherlock fucking Holmes. During his aimless rambling and the occasional dismantling of the odd hapless thug, our hero runs into Mark, a Thai-American cop who has found himself in the middle of a plot that will bring about a change of leadership in a prominent crime family by S&M lunatic, Madam Rose. While both Kham and Mark scuttle around briefly stumbling upon all these linked criminal players (that honestly doesn’t seem to that well thought out), various thugs armed with Phd’s in walloping things seek out the single-minded Kham in order to put the kibosh on his frenetic elephant hunt.
Can Kham possibly save his elephant friends before they’re eaten when the total sum of his plan is to burst into places screaming “WHERE IS MY ELEPHANTS!” and then stick a knee in the face of anyone who objects?
As both (barely) a film reviewer and a devout fan of people kicking each other in the face, it’s actually tough to get an objective read on Warrior King as the film ricochets so wildly between it’s sluggish plot (virtually identical to Ong-Bak if you swap out the head of a religious statue with an adorable, watery eyed elephant) and physical acts of genuine, unfettered genius that you honestly are uncertain if what you’re watching is a work of art or just simply trash with superlative kicky bits…
Well let’s focus on the plot first as I have a very strong suspicion that the main bulk of Warrior King’s shooting schedule was dedicated in realising the immensely brutal and compelling brawls that get conceptually ever more complicated as the film goes on. Why do I think that? Well, maybe it’s because every scene that doesn’t contain Jaa single handedly thrashing dozens of people within an inch of their lives feels like they were scripted, shot and edited over the course over a single weekend and are, objectively put, pretty fucking awful. The guys who can’t speak english struggle with the dialogue and the guys who can can’t act which means keeping up with what’s actually going on is virtually impossible even if it wasn’t poorly plotted nonsense. Now I realise that rarely are the plots of martial arts movies the major draw, neither am I discounting some possible clumsy editing on the part of the International distributors, but nevertheless, getting to the juicy, juicy punch ups really shouldn’t be this much of a chore but as the tangled story flings more and more random details into your ever more irritable face, you end up becoming more bewildered as the film goes on. At one point Johnny, one of the main villains turns up with a brand new, unexplained buzz-cut he didn’t have in the rest of the film and two thirds of the way through it’s offhandedly revealed that the reason that main baddie Madame Rose is going through all this trouble is because her transexuality precludes her from taking control of the crime empire naturally.
Thankfully, just before all this plot-mush becomes too convoluted to deal with, the brawl-gods gift us with a clutch of conceptually amazing fight sequences to reward our patience that takes the full contact physicality of Ong-Bak and runs with it in some ambitious ways.
The most famous of these is a super-long, single, unbroken take where Jaa infiltrates the restaurant by fighting his way up numerous floors of an open plan building like he’s in a real life scrolling beat-em-up video game. Fuck knows how long it took to set up (and god help anyone who messed up a take) but it kind of shows up those over produced (but still admittedly awesome) corridor fights in the Daredevil Netflix shows a little.
In addition to this, not to mention astounding sequences where Tony dismantles around 40 guys, one at a time by snapping important parts of everyone’s skeletal structure and where he fights three guys with wildly differing fighting styles (capoeira, swordplay, wrestler) in a temple that’s both flooded, still on fire and stylishly illogical.
But it’s that fight at the end… that sickening collision of muscle, bone and sinews, where, to defeat a quartet of burly strongmen, Jaa ties elephant bones to his forearms and beats them half to death (but not before severing some vital tendons), that really got my blood pumping. Not to mention any film that features a leading man who is able to execute a standing jump high enough (without wires, mind you!!!) to kick a man in the face who’s in a hovering helicopter, cannot be blithely written off due to ropey storytelling.
Horribly flawed yet containing jaw dropping riches fight fans should lap up, Warrior King (or whatever it’s called in your country) is essentially five-star action sadled with a one-star plot and while it sadly isn’t as engrossing as a whole as Ong-Bak, it still brings the same, spectacular, satisfying and impossibly brutal brand of carnage.
There IS gold here, but like Tony Jaa himself, I’m afraid you’ll have to fight for it…