- Directed Ekachai Uekrongtham
- Starring Tony Jaa, Dolph Lundgren, Ron Perlman, Michael Jai White, Celina Jade, Peter Weller, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
- Released in Thai cinemas on April 23, 2015; rated 18+
- Wise Kwai's rating: 3/5
In order to have fight scenes, you must first have enemies, and Skin Trade gives Phanom “Tony Jaa” Yeerum plenty of those to deal with.
Along with roomfuls of anonymous henchmen to mow down, the Ong-Bak star also gets featured fights with experienced stars, something fans always clamor for. In Skin Trade, Jaa tangles with his much-taller co-star, action veteran Dolph Lundgren, a guy who has gone toe-to-toe with Rocky. And there’s Michael Jai White, the martial-artist and general bad-you-know-what. The Black Dynamite star gets into a knock-down, drag-out scene with Jaa.
The story is the barest of set-ups, standard Bangkok-noir elements that make up the canon of English-language Thai productions, in which foreigner gangsters are somehow allowed to operate without impunity. In Skin Trade (คู่ซัดอันตราย, Koo Sat Antarai), it’s a sleazebag family of Serbians who are trafficking young women through their network of gentlemen’s clubs, brothels and porn studios.
But unusually for a Thai film, some of the action is filmed overseas, with Vancouver, British Columbia, standing in for Newark, New Jersey, where a police officer (Lundgren) is leading an investigation against a former Serbian war criminal and current gangland kingpin. He’s played by Hollywood character actor Ron Perlman, who luxuriates in this thick bad accent.
The opening deftly toggles back and forth between Bangkok and the Garden State. On one side of the world, Royal Thai Police special branch officer Tony twirls around a luxury hotel room full of bad guys, to rescue a farmgirl from a life as a sex slave. Meanwhile, in Newark, there’s the discovery of a shipping container full of dead women, a scene that should resonate with fans of Season 2 of The Wire. Officer Nick gets into a dockland shoot-out, and ends up plugging the favorite son of the Serbian mobster. He retaliates by blowing up Nick’s house with a rocket, which leaves his wife and daughter dead and Nick with a facial scar.
The action then shifts back to Thailand, where a fugitive Nick arrives to a police welcome at Suvarnabhumi airport. A dodgy carpark shootout leaves Tony’s Thai cop partner dead and makes Nick an even bigger target, thanks to dirty double dealing by White’s character.
From there, Skin Trade proceeds at a mostly breakneck pace, running and gunning from tin-shack riverside slums to dusty warehouses to finally bring together to the two stars and turn them from enemies to friends. In the melee, Nick, in pursuit of the gangster Viktor, grabs a dirtbike and busts through a Chinese opera stage, while Tony pursues on foot. Of course, it's a chance to use his trademark acrobatic running and somersaulting through crowded market lanes, always a thrill.
There’s the featured fight with Lundgren, beautifully staged in a rice warehouse, and another with White. And in addition to the punch-ups, there are plenty of explosions, including a retaliatory rocket-launcher firing that brings down a helicopter.
Each actor gets their moment to shine. For Jaa, it’s a chance to try out new English-language skills. He’s always been a man of few words, mostly having to do with the location of a missing elephant. But he now has quips like “negotiation is over” or “you will rot in hell”, best said with a menacing hiss as someone is being dangled off the ledge of a five-star hotel.
Lundgren, with a polished granite exterior, is an big old softie inside, and his character is given just enough of a family life to make him someone with whom the audience can sympathize.
As the Serbian crime boss Viktor, Perlman sinks deep into that Eastern European accent, rolling off such phrases as “you have a strong heartbeat … there is a musicality to the rhythm”. The Hellboy star even gets to puff on one of his beloved cigars while dishing out punishment.
A handful of supporting characters also stand out. Celina Jade from TV’s Arrow is Tony’s girlfriend and playful sparring partner. A former sex-trafficking victim, she dons angel wings to work as an undercover informant in the Serbian club.
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a veteran of Showdown in Little Tokyo and other Lundgren pictures, turns up as a local polician, who has just enough influence to keep the cops away from Viktor's rackets.
And RoboCop himself, Peter Weller, is Lundgren’s police chief back home. He gets a healthy bit of exposition to deliver, and a possibility of seeing more action in a sequel.
Even seasoned Thai character actor Sahajak “Puu” Boonthanakit gets his licks in. He’s played cops and bad guys in countless English-language productions here, but his perverted porn director this time around is especially memorable. Hopefully, he received counseling after the cameras stopped rolling.
It’s all held together thanks to execution by director Ekachai Uekrongtham, a helmer who is known for theater productions, such as Chang and Eng, about the original Siamese twins, and arthouse movies like Pleasure Factory, about Singapore’s Geylang red-light district. But his work on the 2003 transgender-fighter biopic Beautiful Boxer and his current Muay Thai Live stage show in Bangkok made him a natural choice to help showcase Jaa’s first headline effort as an international star. There’s no muss and no fuss, and the style is consistent, whether the action is taking place in a New Jersey police station or a bar on Sukhumvit Soi 7/1. Framing is still and steady, allowing viewers to take in the full picture of the action and feel the impact.
Talents behind the scenes who surely aided those efforts include cinematographer Ben Nott (Daybreakers), veteran production designer Ek Iemchuan (Tears of the Black Tiger and Ong-Bak 2) and stunt coordinator and second-unit director Dian Hristov (Expendables 2).
Produced by Craig Baumgarten, Lundgren and Jaa’s Bangkok-based manager and producer Michael Selby, Skin Trade is a project that Lundgren helped write and has been trying to get made for many years. It came to fruition when he met Jaa while working on a Thai film called Ai Noon Gangnam (A Man Will Rise), an intriguing "Eastern western" that was set up at Sahamongkol Film.
Much of the news about Skin Trade has been overshadowed by a contract dispute between Jaa and Sahamongkol, where he made Ong-Bak, Tom-Yum-Goong and the aborted A Man Will Rise. The studio went to court to try and to prevent the Thai release of Fast and Furious 7, Jaa’s Hollywood debut in which he has a small but memorable turn as a villain who tangles with Paul Walker.
Skin Trade gives Jaa a chance to prove himself as a leading man alongside Hollywood heavyweights, and he acquits himself well. Coming up next is Jaa’s Hong Kong debut in Sha Po Leng II. But perhaps a sequel to Skin Trade ought to also be in the works?