Tom yum goong
starring Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Xing Jing
screenplay by Kongdej Jaturanrasamee & Napalee & Piyaros Thongdee and Joe Wannapin
directed by Prachya Pinkaew
starring Steven Strait, Sebastian Stan, Laura Ramsey, Taylor Kitsch
screenplay by J.S. Cardone
directed by Renny Harlin
by Walter Chaw Tony Jaa is a bad motherfucker. There's a moment in his latest export The Protector where it appears as though he's killed someone with his penis (lo, how I would love to avoid that epitaph), and in the meantime, he dispatches foes with the heedless joy of obvious predecessor Jackie Chan (who has a cameo in the film shot so ineptly that it suggests a Jackie Chan impersonator smeared with Vaseline). Alas, there's a plot (something about the kidnapping of two elephants, one of which is turned into a gaudy tchotcke in an evil dragon lady's den of inequity), too, told through a lot of howlingly incompetent narrative chunks you could seemingly rearrange in any order with no tangible disruption of sense. (The Butchers Weinstein may of course be partly to blame.) The film is easily the funniest, most exhilaratingly ridiculous picture in a year in which Snakes on a Plane aspired to the same camp/cult heights, and it does it the only way that you can: by being deadly serious.
It's serious when a giant white man-hammer throws a baby elephant; serious when Jaa's titular elephant keeper has an inopportune flashback while a band of baddies pummels his teary-eyed body; even serious in imagining a Sydney, Australia with an all-Thai-speaking police force and media. It seems to mean it when it shows Jaa stalking around with a baby elephant sans uproar through a major, Western metropolis, when that same elephant somehow sneaks up on him in the dark, and when a clarion rings through the metal canyons to summon a tribe of rollerblading/BMXing delinquents--thus once it finally comes time for Jaa to kick some serious ass in a sequence of orthopaedic upset protracted to the point where I actually started wishing mercy on Jaa's victims, the only response possible is a hysterical combination of tears of joy and tears of shame.
Two scenes make the film an instant classic. The first is a SteadiCam sequence up the stairs of a tiered edifice (shades of Matthew Barney's ascension of the Guggenheim in his Cremaster epic), the second the abovementioned gallery of calamitous joint trauma. They're showcases for the humourless Jaa's specific brand of Muy Thai mayhem--and so intensely pleasurable that they turn the bug-eyed horror of its purported storyline into just the chantilly on this violent sundae. I confess that I haven't had this much fun watching--nor in truth harboured this much affection for--a film in ages; this is a picture that thinks it logical to have its hero strap elephant leg bones to his forearms for a little extra oomph--a picture so clueless in its misogyny and racism that it's almost adorably naïve. The Protector's protectors post-pubescent are probably all coming from a similarly patronizing perspective, sadly, but there's no head-patting Jaa's prowess as an emerging martial arts legend. Only time will tell if he evolves into Jet Li's introspective, serious artist or Chan's gracelessly-aging also-ran, but for now, The Protector feels like a little of the old religion.
The Covenant, on the other hand, feels a little like a cross between The Lost Boys and Zapped!, replicating the boy-band evil superhero vibe of the former and the flip a girl's skirt up with your dirty telekinetic mind of the latter. (I'm not kidding.) In fact, we're introduced to arch-villain Chase (Sebastian Stan--and if you think this is a spoiler, you're not able to read this anyway) when he transforms himself into gas to spy on gorgeous love interest Sarah (Laura Ramsey), who, bless her heart (and her roommate's heart), goes to bed in a selection of Victoria's Secret workout gear. There's a moment where schlock pulp maestro Renny Harlin pans through the exclusive New England prep school providing the film's central setting that I wondered, briefly, if he wasn't attempting some sort of allegory about Aryan perfection and the Third Reich's courting of the occult arrayed against a curly-haired heartthrob protagonist (Steven Strait). But that moment passed.
The Covenant is, sadly, just another fallout from the Titanic blast of programming garbage for the babysitter demographic; it's packed to the gills with pretty boys doing their best not to be forgotten in the next wave of pop-cultural irrelevance. Imagine a film that frames its climactic showdown between two Highlander-infused warlocks as a duel that features as its weapons of choice the kind of pestilential plagues and possessions of classic witchcraft (which this film invokes through arcane references to Salem--making it the second dud in as many weeks to do so after Neil LaBute's The Wicker Man) instead of what The Covenant does, which is have its antagonists throw digital force balls at one another. Of all the modern American authors namedropped in one of its dour classroom sequences (Cormac McCarthy has never been this egregiously misused), the one notably missing is John Updike and his The Witches of Eastwick. There's not one smart moment in The Covenant (though opportunities for intelligence abound), not even unintentional hilarity in its daft awkwardness--but the real reason it sucks is because it's as boring as a pine weevil. Originally published: September 13, 2006.