A correction was made to this review on Jan. 17, 2006.
Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa comes out of his corner with bone-crunching power in “Tom-Yum-Goong,” a socko action follow-up to “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior” that has everything but a decent script and involving lead perf. Boasting the same refreshing avoidance of CGI and wire work as “Warrior,” slickly made production (largely by the same team) is more consciously aimed at the international market, with its Australian setting and multilingual dialogue. Muscular biz looks likely among chopsocky fans, though Jaa’s machine-like screen persona and pic’s lack of mollifying humor, compared with classic Hong Kong product, could limit broader appeal.
Much-anticipated title was released in most key Asian markets (apart from Japan) last August, taking a reportedly massive 300 million baht ($7.5 million) in its native Thailand and a handsome but not boffo HK$11.6 million ($1.5 million) in Hong Kong. European debut is Feb. 8 in France, where it will open in a version some 15 minutes shorter than the original. No date has been announced for release Stateside, where it goes out via the Weinstein Co.
Ancillary looks to be especially strong, as most Asiaphiles will want the original 110-minute version. However, so far film is available only on an unsubtitled Thai DVD and a Chinese-dubbed Hong Kong VCD (reviewed here). Stringent precautions have been taken against local piracy, and pic even contains a fleeting scene in which a passer-by castigates her b.f. for buying a bootlegged movie.
Opening two reels — beautifully shot and scored, but leisurely paced — introduce Kham (Jaa), a country lad who grows up with two elephants and is taught muay thai martial arts by his dad. Alas, when dad enters a selection process to have his elephants presented to the king, underworld heavies kidnap the two pachyderms.
At the 18-minute mark, pic suddenly cranks into action, with an explosive fight in a restaurant where Kham has traced the villains, followed by a speedboat chase that’s a showcase of zippy staging and editing. Upshot is that Kham finds the Dumbos have been shipped Down Under.
Cut to Sydney, two weeks later, and Kham arrives armed with only a picture of a restaurant, Tom-Yum-Goong, in Thai Town. All paths gradually lead to transsexual Madame Rose, played with relish by former Shanghai Ballet star (and real-life transsexual) Jin Xing.
Highlight of what’s basically a string of fight scenes comes at the hour mark: a jaw-dropping four-minute single take, with the steadicam almost a partner in the action, in which Kham battles his way up a luxurious four-story brothel, disposing of 30 heavies along the way.
With almost zero character detail, film starts to become repetitive in its second half, despite the inventive fight choreography (enhanced by bone-snapping sound effects) and Jaa’s genuine skills (unenhanced by special effects). The final showdown, in which Kham individually takes on 50 of Madame Rose’s black-suited bodyguards, is a show-stopper.
Jaa, 30, combines the gymnastics agility of Jackie Chan with the physical intensity of Bruce Lee. But so far, he fatally lacks an involving screen persona and any sense of humor.
As in “Ong-Bak,” the color comes from the supports, especially Phettkai Wongkamlao as an ethnic local cop; unfortunately, Wongkamlao’s English delivery is far from clear at times. Jin is aces as the Fu Manchu-like villainess, though isn’t given a fitting fight finale. Bongkod Kongmalai is pretty but bland as Pla, a whore who shelters Kham.
With an enhanced budget, tech package is considerably smoother than that of “Ong-Bak.” Pic’s title is also the name of a well-known Thai dish, a hot-and-sour shrimp soup.