Tom Yum Goong review
Great action, dumb movie
(beware of spoilers)
Maybe it was because it was one of the most eagerly anticipated Thai movie in years. Maybe it was because its predecessor was so awesome. Or maybe it was just because the filmmakers wanted to quickly cash in on the unexpected success of the sleeper hit Ong Bak. But for whatever reason, Tom Yum Goong is a mess of a movie whose bone-crunching, jaw-dropping action sequences were put together with much more love and care than the rest of the movie.
Ong Bak, as everyone knows by now, was the vehicle that announced the arrival of Panom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum as an international action star overnight. The simple but sweet storyline made no pretensions at sophistication, but it worked. We cared for the characters of country bumpkin hero Ting, the city-corrupted George and even the shrill-voiced Muay. There was some character development, predictable but nevertheless welcome, as George came to his senses towards the end of the movie. The action was not all martial arts, but included a hilarious chase on foot through the narrow side streets of Bangkok, and a tuk-tuk chase that was milked for comedy as well as suspense.
These ingredients were missing from Tom Yum Goong. It seems as if the sole purpose of the movie was to showcase Tony Jaa's amazing athletic prowess and martial arts skills. This is to be expected, of course, but the slapdash quality of the non-action aspects prevent this movie from being as thoroughly enjoyable as Ong Bak. The character development in this movie makes Daredevil and Elektra seem like Shakespeare. We know nothing about the hero other than the fact that he loves his elephants. He has no social context, no life hinted at apart from his relationship with his mahout father and his beloved elephants. His fighting skills seem to have developed from practicing only kata with no sparring involved. Fair enough for a martial arts movie, I suppose, but more careful attention to his back story would have made this a much more effective movie that would attract mainstream audiences as well as hardcore martial arts maniacs.
The movie starts out promisingly enough: a boy and his elephant growing up together. Beautifully shot scenes of the Thai countryside. Establishing shots of the bonds between the hero and his pachyderms. Where the movie begins to unravel is when the elephants are stolen. The father elephant is assiduously examined for auspicious characteristics at an elephant selection process ostensibly to choose elephants to offer the King. It is unlikely that such an event could be used as a front to steal an elephant for a foreign crime syndicate, as it is apparently officially sanctioned, with banners and uniformed officials everywhere. And then the aspiring politician, who is in cahoots with the bad guys, shoots the hero's father, apparently heedless to what this would do to his chances at the polling booth.
To get his elephants back, the hero does not go to the police (or maybe he already knows the futility of doing so), but literally crashes a retro-style party thrown by the politician. The hero just announces his arrival with flying knees that knocks out the politician's bodyguards like so many bowling pins and proceeds to make short shrift of the hapless (but no doubt evil) partygoers. Oscar material it's not, but for sheer campy fun, scenes like these are hard to beat.
Where the movie goes from B+ to B- is in the Australia sequences. The newscasts bear no semblance to real newscasts, with the supposedly Australia-based anchors speaking in Thai accents that sometimes defy comprehension. The police are given to making wincingly dumb statements (script police, please!). Mum Jokmok's character, Spec Sgt Mark, speaks English that can only be understood by a Thai, which made me wonder how he ever managed to join the Australian police force. Archvillain Madam Rose is strictly a cliche dragon lady who poisons her cousins to take control of the "business empire," which we hear about but never see evidence of, beyond a seedy wildlife cuisine restaurant and suggestions of a human trafficking syndicate.
The editing and continuity are horrendous and add to the confusion. Gratuitous scenes abound that should have ended up on the cutting room floor, such as a seconds-long aerial shot of a cemetery, to which we cut to the grimly smiling face of Madam Rose, and back to that aerial shot. A plot device about a camcorder that recorded a crime is introduced but goes nowhere. It feels as if a lot of action movie cliches were thrown out at a late-night brainstorming session and were all kept in, perhaps out of deference to their originators.
Things begin to pick up again when such trivial things as plot and character are put on hold and the hero is allowed to do his thing, which is kicking butt. After the villainous police detective kills a monk and burns down the Thai temple to draw out the hero (which makes no sense but creates a nice setting of water and fire), we are treated to an amazingly choreographed fight in ankle-deep water between the hero's elephant-style Thai boxing and the Brazilian art of capoeira. We also get to see how muay Thai stacks up against hulking wrestling types. And of course, there is that 4-minute continuous shot of the hero fighting his way up four floors of the villain's den. Conceptually it reminded me of Bruce Lee's Game of Death, but substantively it resembled more of a video game, where the hero trashes everyone in his path. Blue Cross, anyone?
Much as I loved the action in this movie, my only complaint would be that there is such a cornucopia, such an embarrassment of riches, of it. In fact, so awesome were the action sequences that after a while I just went into an altered state, a kind of sensory overload. One amazing stunt after another, on and on and on, just flooded my capacity for astonishment so that after a while I grew kind of numb. There were enough stunts and fights in this movie for 2 or 3 ordinary action movies.
For all the things wrong with this movie, however, Tony Jaa's talent alone was enough to compensate for all of it, and then some. If the filmmakers had paid more attention to things like plot, editing and dialogue, Tom Yum Goong would be assured a place of pride in the action movie, not just the martial arts movie, hall of fame.