Warrior King

Warrior King


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

As Kham (Tony Jaa) wanders through the lobby of Sydney's international airport, he runs smack bang into Jackie Chan (or at least a close lookalike of Jackie Chan) going in the opposite direction. This neatly positions the newcomer Jaa as headed for the same place in the world of martial arts that Chan has occupied before him. While this might sound a presumptuous claim for a relatively green action star in only his second leading role, in fact Jaa made such an explosive impact in his earlier film Ong Bak (2003), with his gravity-defying wire-free stuntwork and vicious Muay Thai moves, that he seems already to have proven himself a worthy rival to the greats of the martial arts pantheon. Put simply, Jaa fights just as well (and acts just as badly) as Chan, Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba and Jet Li all rolled into one. The man is a phenomenon.

Warrior King essentially recycles the plot trajectory featured in Ong Bak: a pure-hearted young Thai man, played by Jaa, is drawn to the vice-ridden city when evil outsiders steal something of great value to his idyllic rural community, and kicks serious butt to get it back, with the help of a comic sidekick played once again by Phetthai Wongkamlao. Only this time the city is not Bangkok but Sydney, and the stolen item is not the head of a sacred statue, but a pachyderm and its young calf - giving rise to one of the most endearingly bizarre catchphrases in recent memory, "Where the hell is my elephant?".

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As Kham searches high and low for the lost beasts, his repertoire of investigative techniques (mostly involving brute force and grievous bodily harm) leads him to the ruthless whip-wielding tranny Madame Rose (Jin Xing), whose Thai restaurant in Sydney is a front for all manner of illegal activities, with the collusion of bent cop Vincent (Damian De Montemas). Cue lots of punishing biffo, as Jaa fights street gangs, underworld armies, experts in capoeira and wu shu, and finally totemic giants, in defence not just of himself and his oversized pets, but of his nation's traditional values, under threat from foreign influence, internal corruption, sacrilegious secularism, gender ambiguity and modernity itself.

Like Madame Rose's restaurant, Warrior King was originally named Tom Yum Goong, after Thailand's famous hot and sour soup - and like any well-cooked broth, it transcends the sum of its ingredients. The comedy may be hokey, the acting third rate, the characterisation flat and the plotting threadbare, but once the daftly over-the-top action set-pieces get going, your jaw will drop to the floor and stay there right till the final scene, where, with hilarious understatement, Kham's father (Sotorn Rungraeng) declares in voice-over: "Actually Thais are peaceful, but we don't like it when people take liberties."

In Warrior King, you see, people who take liberties tend to finish up with their skulls pummelled, their bones crushed and their limbs twisted. In a climax that rivals The Bride's vengeful onslaught on the Crazy 88 at the end of Kill Bill: Volume 1, Jaa takes on a whole room of smartly dressed thugs, methodically breaking their arms and legs one after the other in an orgy of crunching pain. Yet the real stand-out scene comes much earlier in Warrior King, and is destined to take its iconic place in the history of cinema alongside Eisenstein's staircase montage from Battleship Potemkin, Welles' tensely busy single-take opening from Touch of Evil, or Coppola's Wagner-inflected dawn raid from Apocalypse Now.

In a four-minutes-plus sequence without a single cut, the camera circles, ducks and weaves around Jaa as he dashes upwards from one floor to the next of Madame Rose's den of iniquity, spectacularly taking on all-comers. This cartoonish tour-de-force, in all its frantic mobility and breath-taking violence, is quite simply the finest pure action sequence that this reviewer has ever seen, and will be remembered long after the peculiar sight of Kham crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a baby elephant has been forgotten. It is what elevates Warrior King from being a two-star no-brainer to a four-star extravaganza of inventive, visually stunning brutality (by the trunkload).

Reviewed on: 27 Jul 2006
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Tony Jaa kicks ass for the elephants.
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Director: Prachya Pinkaew

Writer: Napalee Piyeros Thongdee, Joe Wannapin, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, from a story by Prachya Pinkaew

Starring: Tony Jaa, Phetthai Wongkamlao, Bongkod Kongmalai, Amonphan Gongtragan, Jin Xing, Nathan Jones, Tri Nguyen, Damian De Montemas, David Chatchavan Asavanod, Lateef Crowder, Jonathan Patrick Foo, Sotorn Rungruaeng, Winai Poonpermponsiri, Nutdanai Kong

Year: 2005

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Thailand


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