The Protector is at least four stars’ worth of guilty pleasure, and maybe more. It’s hands down the best kung-fu movie ever made — with all that implies. That means the film is delirious in its absurdity, raging in its preposterousness, jaw-droppingly bad in its acting, astonishing in its feats of derring-do, spotty in its filmmaking technique and utterly incoherent in its plotting. (In fairness, on that last point, the film was cut from 109 to 84 minutes for U.S. consumption. Frankly, I prefer to think that the missing 25 minutes would only make it less coherent, since part of its appeal is the seemingly gleeful manner in which credibility, realism and anything resembling normalcy are ignored.) In other words, it’s quite nearly perfect … for what it is.
There are, it seems, persons who do not enjoy the spectacle of a hero who keeps bursting into scenes screaming, “Where are my elephants?” I, happily, am not among those people. The whole premise of The Protector centers on the fact that Chinese gangsters from Australia traveled to Thailand for the express purpose of stealing Kham’s (Tony Jaa, Ong-Bak) elephants — one full-grown and the other a baby named Kohrn in the subtitles and Korn in the credits.
Well, in Thailand purloining another person’s pachyderm is just not done. In fact, it’s apparently the height of rudeness, since our hero seems far more upset over this than the fact that they plugged his father in the process of elephant thievery. As a result, these miscreants have to deal with the wrath of Kham, who, following scenes of random elephant action and a spectacular, property-damage inflicting, high-speed boat chase, boards a plane for Sydney to dole out justice and hopefully recover his pets. The fact that he’s armed with nothing more than a snapshot of the villainous Johnny (Johny Nguyen, Ella Enchanted) standing in front of a Chinese restaurant does not deter Kham — nor should it, because the restaurant in question is a front for the myriad evil activities of Chinese mob boss Madame Rose (Xing Jing), who also may be a transsexual and is certainly fond of dominatrix accoutrements. (It’s somehow fitting in this movie that the godmother of Chinese gangsterdom has taken a western name, with seemingly no translation, which none of her henchmen can pronounce. In the Mandarin dialogue, it always comes out “Madame Lose.”)
But it’s not an easy journey to the restaurant and its infamous “back room.” Poor Kham is first “mistaken” for a criminal by a corrupt cop who’s in cahoots with Madame Rose. (There’s a whole subplot here that I’m not even going to attempt to recount.) Next, he finds himself in a warehouse full of old streetcars (I don’t know why, but they look neat) where he’s set upon by a variety of in-line skaters wielding fluorescent light bulbs, motocross bikers and some guy in a gladiatorial ATV — all summoned by Johnny blowing the factory whistle.
When Kham finally does get into the “back room,” we find it’s actually five or six stories of curving pleasure palace (think the Guggenheim Museum gone decadent). Even more unexpected is what this scene affords cinematically: Four solid minutes of the most breathtaking single-take I have ever seen — up four curving staircases, in and out of rooms, over and around balconies, you name it. It’s far more impressive than the whole mind-numbing 96-minute single-take of Russian Ark (2002). And the action never lets up for those four minutes. It’s nonstop martial-arts action that manages to throw in just about everything you can think of — very nearly including the kitchen sink (well, it’s a porcelain water fountain, but it’s close). The payoff? Decadence run wild — girls imprisoned for the slave trade, jaded diners noshing on dishes made from endangered species and Kohrn rescued from becoming a potential luncheon special.
Nothing else in The Protector quite lives up to this tour de force, but the film never lets up and never stops trying — from a preposterous battle in a decorously burning (the flames never spread and are strictly for menacing atmosphere) Buddhist temple to the big showdown with Madame Rose. And the big showdown is big — a friend of mine counted 64 bone-snappings and thinks the figure might be higher — as an endless parade of assailants appear to try and take on Kham (one at a time, of course). The real show is Tony Jaa, who is simply amazing — no wirework, no CGI, just an astounding display of unbelievable feats. Extremely violent, silly and even nonsensical, but, boy, is it fun! Rated R for pervasive strong violence and some sexual content.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke