Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Review: Tom Yum Goong

  • Directed by Pracha Pinkaew
  • Starring Tony Jaa, Mum Jokmok, Bongkote Kongmalai, Johnny Nguyen, Jing Xing, Nathan Jones, Lateef Crowder, Jon Foo.
  • Wide theatrical release in Asia on August 11, 2005

There’s a reason Tom Yum Goong is titled such. Not just an arbitrary title, it's the name of a restaurant in Sydney that is a front for various illegal activities, including elephant smuggling.

Which is what brings country boy Kham (Phanom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum) to Australia. Essentially, it’s the same story as Tony’s first movie, “Ong Bak” – something is stolen from his rural home and he must go to the city to retrieve it.

Two years have passed since “Ong Bak”, which became an international sensation. The acclaim has given Jaa, director Prachya Pinkaew and stunt coordinator Panna Ritthikrai a reason to try and aim higher and do more. Though the stunts and fighting are still breathtaking, the spicy action is watered down by a convoluted, preachy story. It’s been diluted for international tastes. The title, while having an actual connection to the story, announces the movie as just another product in Thailand Inc's marketing blitz.

There’s an international cast as well, including Chinese ballet dancer Jing Xing as the lead villain, with Spider-Man stunt double Johnny Nguyen and Australian strongman Nathan Jones as henchmen.

Thai stars include Ong Bak comic relief Petchtai “Mum Jok Mok” Wongkamlao, this time as a cop, and stunning leading lady Bongkote “Tak” Kongmalai (Ai Fak, Bangrajan)

The story begins poetically and reverently, with Kham growing up with elephants and being taught by his father all the lore about these great beasts – how to protect them and fight like them. Then, amidst the Songkran celebration and an elephant roundup, things go awry and Kham’s father’s bull elephant, Por Yai, and a calf, Korn, are stolen.

Kham must find the elephants. He crashes a party, trashes the house and gets into an obligatory long-tail boat chase with gangsters, which culminates with explosive results.

He gets the information he needs, which leads him to Sydney, where at the airport he bumps into someone familiar looking. They exchange glances, but the other guy tells Kham not to worry, just keep going. What was that all about?

Kham, not speaking a lick of English, hops in a cab and shows a picture to the driver – it’s of some people and the Tom Yum Goong restaurant.

But the driver is wanted by the police, and after a brief chase, Kham becomes acquainted with Sgt Mark (Mum), the Asian community liaison officer for the police. Kham is held briefly, but escapes when he recognises the bad guy Johnny (Nguyen) from the picture and gives chase through downtown Sydney. While he pursues Johnny and his thugs, he encounters Pla (Tak), a Thai woman who for some reason must ||work as a prostitute for Johnny’s gang. She tries to warn him not to mess with those guys, but Kham messes anyway.

From the streets, the action moves to a warehouse, where Kham must battle a gang of extreme-sport punks wielding fluorescent light sticks for no apparent reason other than it looks cool.

The story is confusing. Johnny is the chief thug for Madame Rose (Jing), a transsexual Chinese crime boss who’s trying to consolidate her territory. She’s aided by a corrupt Australian police detective. The story also involves Sgt Mark being framed for the murder of a police commissioner, which puts him on the run.

Among the enterprises fronted by Rose’s Tom Yum Goong restaurant is another restaurant upstairs where smuggled wildlife is served up.

Kham eventually makes it inside the restaurant, bursting in and scaring all the regular customers. But upstairs, where fat cats are dining on pangolins and pythons, no one bats an eye when a Thai guy in a red scarf bursts in and hollers, “Where are my elephants!” Indeed, when Johnny knocks Kham down with another series of roundhouse kicks, the crowd applauds. But even they start screaming when Kham keeps getting up and coming back for more.

Eventually, Kham and Mark hide out in a Buddhist temple run by an Australian monk. Later, the bad guys come looking for Kham at the temple, beating up the monk and his followers and setting the place on fire, which makes the sprinkler system go off and creates a scene that’s straight out of a John Woo movie. All that’s missing are white doves.

But to make up for that, there’s menacing capoeira figher Lateef Crowder who has a go at Kham. More martial-arts ballet comes from wushu artist Jon Foo. The terrible trio is completed by the hulking Jones, who gets to enjoy much more action than he did with Brad Pitt in the opening scenes of “Troy”.

The closing fight scene at Madame Rose’s darkened headquarters features Kham laying waste to dozens of men, leaving them moaning on the floor, similar to what Uma Thurman’s character did in Kill Bill Vol 1. Kham then faces Jones again, along with three other giant bruisers. This is where his expertise with elephants (and some old elephant bones) comes in handy. He has a final showdown with Johnny and even Rose gets in on the action, swinging a bullwhip, and later trying to make her escape by helicopter.

Not to throw too much cold water on this hot and spicy action movie – the action is what fans will come for – but “Tom Yum Goong” cannot make the claim of “no wires, no tricks, no CGI”, like “Ong Bak” did. There are certain digital effects done in post production that detract from the authenticity of Panna’s and Jaa’s hard-hitting stunt choreography. Perhaps if the story had been kept as simple as “Ong Bak’s” was – and based in Thailand – there would have been no need for the visual trickery.

Tony is solid as always. He has a natural presence that has carried him far and will continue to carry him. But the best acting is by Mum, who is hilarious whether he’s speaking Thai or his heavily accented English. Make sure you stick around for the closing credits to catch him bungling his lines. Tak is excellent in all her scenes, however brief, though her sexy charm shines in a mud-bath segment. Nguyen exudes charisma, unless he’s in a scene with Jing. In those, both he and Jing are horrible. On their own, they’re both fun to watch.

Tom Yum Goong is clearly an effort to cash in on the runaway success of Ong Bak. It shows that there are some great talents at work – Tony and stunt director Panna. They are already planning a third film, which hopefully will be back to the basic, old-school movie martial arts that were better showcased in Ong Bak.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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