Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Vengeance of the Assassin

  • Directed by Panna Rittikrai
  • Starring Chupong Changprung, Nathawut Boonrubsub, Ping Lumpraploeng, Nisachon Tuamsungnoen
  • Released in Thai cinemas on October 13, 2014; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

Vengeance of the Assassin (Rew Talu Rew, เร็วทะลุเร็ว) wasn't supposed to be Panna Rittikrai's last film. It feels more like a middling placeholder, a fun slice of gritty action to tide folks over until something bigger from the director and martial-arts choreographer comes along. Heck, there's even a tag that hints at a sequel to Vengeance of the Assassin, which was completed around a year or so ago and kept in the vaults of Sahamongkolfilm. Sadly, Panna passed away in July at age 53 of liver ailments. So a sequel seems unlikely.

Vengeance of the Assassin also harks back to the original backyard stunt movies Panna made in the 1980s and '90s, before he blew up big in 2003 with his protege Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak, which made Panna a household name among action cultists worldwide. Before then, Panna's rough-and-tumble direct-to-VCD offerings were mainly only viewed in his native Northeastern Thailand, and were popular among farmers, truckers, cab drivers and laborers hailing from the Isaan region.

And the opening scene of Vengeance of the Assassin could be viewed as a standalone, a beautiful and moving tribute to Panna's talent at staging martial-arts setpieces. It has everything the late stunt guru became known for. The scene involves young guys squaring off at a game of indoor soccer, with deadly consquences. Panna dusts off all his tricks, with fighters swooping in from outside the frame to converge in a mass of swinging limbs and bone-crunching sound effects. Water is spraying everywhere, and there's tons of glass to break, for no apparent reason other than it just looks cool. With each moment, Panna one-ups himself, and for the players, the risks become greater and greater until they are essentially playing soccer in a lake of gasoline next to a red-hot charcoal grill. Boom!

"Diew" Chupong Changprung, who made his debut with Panna's first big mainstream directorial effort, 2004's, Born to Fight as well as another top-shelf Panna project, Dynamite Warrior, stars. He's Thee, a young man seeking answers about the death of his parents. Thee's drunken auto-mechanic uncle (scene-hogging comedian Ping Lumpraploeng) is mum on the details but his daily afternoon Beer Leo stupor makes it easy for Thee to sneak into a secret room and find clues.

So Thee lights out on his own, tracking down a mysterious Buddhist monk who knew his parents. He then bumps into a cardigan-clad man who is a member of a league of assassins. Brooding Thee joins this shadowy band of killers in zipper sweaters. But it's anything but a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

The plot becomes a bit muddled, but it boils down to Thee being framed for trying to kill Ploy, the daughter of a politically connected bigwig, and he has to go on the run with the girl (bright-eyed newcomer Nisachon Tuamsungnoen).

His quest for revenge and refuge leads him back home to his uncle and brother Than, who are reluctantly drawn into Thee's fight. Ploy's family doctor, a Chinese healer named Master Sifu, also ably pitches in. A fierce fighter, he's portrayed by a Malaysian actor, but I missed the fellow's name in the credits.

Nathawut Boonrubsub, who made his debut as a pint-sized warrior in 2009's Power Kids – another Panna project – is in fine form as Thee's kid brother Than. He teaches himself martial-arts moves and gun-fu by watching old videotapes of his parents that his uncle had hidden.

Bad guys clad in black are literally coming out of the woodwork as martial-arts battles ensue in the confines of greasy garages, grimy factories and abandoned office buildings.

Among the villains Thee and Than have to tangle with is an imposing female assassin portrayed by Diew's Born to Fight co-star, former taekwondo national athlete "Nui" Kessarin Ektawatkul. She's having a blast as the oversexed lead baddie, but her threat is short-lived. She has a boyfriend with a neck tattoo who takes over for her in the fight.

There's a lot of gunplay. And a gratuitous number of car chases. And a big setpiece atop a moving passenger train that is probably 90 percent CGI, but is still great fun. There's thrills and painful-looking spills aplenty during the train sequence, which involves the uncle and the Chinese healer chasing along in a Land Rover filled with machine guns and a misfiring RPG. Then a helicopter swoops in and it all goes crazy.

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