Martial arts movies used to follow a venerable tradition. Get a famous, kung fu master with the acting skills of your average Matt Damon. Calculate the size of the budget, and spend that amount of money on special effects. Get whoever is standing nearby to write a plot down on the back of a napkin. Relocate to Australia (the land of cheap extras). And start kicking some ass.
Then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along and changed all that. By taking the controversial step of employing people who could act as well as those who could kick a lot of extras in the head, Ang Lee virtually reinvented the genre. And while Lee set new standards for direction, Yuen Woo Ping set new standards for stunt work, much of which he performed with the help of wires.
Tony Jaa, with his one man vehicle Warrior King, grabs these innovations firmly round the throat and breaks their arms in three places. This film is a return to classic times of absurd plots, wooden acting and manufactured scenarios, none of which get in the way of the action which I, and anyone else who sees it, will be forced to describe as bone-crunching.
Tony Jaa plays Kham, a Thai farmer living a simple life with his father and the three family elephants. Their life revolves around the animals; farming, building and living alongside them. But elephants are highly prized in Thailand and, when Kham’s father is shot and the beasts are kidnapped (not as easy as it sounds), he must travel to Sidney to rescue them and take his revenge.
As it progresses, other characters come and go, but their stories get so little attention that they hardly seem worth mentioning. Phetthai Wongkhamlao plays a charismatic cop with too little screen time. Bongkod Kongmalai plays the student turned prostitute suffering from an absence of lines. Tri Nguyen plays someone who’s name, alignment and raison d’etre remained a mystery for much of the movie.
It doesn’t matter of course, and in fact even adds to the entertainment. The point of something like this is the fight scenes, and here Warrior King delivers in spades. Jaa wades his way through wave after wave of improbable enemies and, from the inline skaters to the WWF wrestlers, all are left mangled and broken. Arms, legs, spines, kneecaps; nothing cannot be shattered by a Mauy Tai twist and turn.
In the end, I probably don’t need to tell you if you’ll like this movie; but it does what it sets out to do with such gusto that I don’t see how you couldn’t. Just try not to laugh each time Jaa screams “where the hell is my elephant?” – he’s trying to act, you know.