Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: Hanuman: The White Monkey Warrior

  • Directed by Sakchai Sriboonnak
  • Starring Sornram Theppitak, Yardtip Rajpal, Damian Mavis, Dean Alexandrou, Anton Kalin
  • Released in Thai cinemas on August 12, 2008
  • Rating: 2/5

Nowhere near as fun or as cool as the posters promise, Phranakorn Film's foray into action, Hanuman: The White Monkey Warrior (หนุมานคลุกฝุ่น, Hanuman Klook Phun), is a major letdown.

The problem is that star Sornram Theppitak is not a martial artist. Tony Jaa has spoiled fans of Thai action cinema -- we expect the star to do his own stunts and throw his own punches. But any time Sornram is kicking, hitting, clambering around on a truck or flying by wire, he's wearing a ballcap to cover his face. This makes it convenient for those shots that capture all the action from a distance. But whenever his face is in the frame, the shot is too close and cropped to get any sense that he's actually fighting -- even if he may have thrown a few punches or was laced into a harness.

Faring better in this tale of supernatural tattoos is a trio of foreign bad guys, played by Damian Mavis, Dean Alexandrou and Anton Kalin, all experienced stunt actors who flip, kick, punch and sneer their way through the picture with glee. They are fun to watch and make Hanuman at least somewhat tolerable.

Even when he's rolling around in bed with some ladies and is stripped down to nothing but a pair of black briefs, Mavis gives it his all, despite the bizarre tiger-striped hairstyle he's sporting. Alexandrou is as balletically bad-ass as ever -- he should have been playing the hero. And Kalin rocks his dreadlocks, even has he's changing into a CGI crocodile and rolling around on the ground.

The plot, which contains too many loose threads, never really gains any momentum. The narrative is bogged down by too many flashbacks and a confusing litany of supporting characters who seem irrelevant.

Sornram is Yod, a young man raised by a tattoo master, who tattooed the monkey god Hanuman on Yod's chest. A nifty comic-book title sequence explains that the fighters in Bang Rajan wore these mystical, ancient tattoos, which gave them superpowers. Too bad the rest of the movie wasn't that well illustrated.

A rival tattoo master, with a stable of foreign fighters, seeks a MacGuffin in a cloth-wrapped package that Yod possesses. He sends Damian the tiger, Dean the black leopard and Anton the crocodile to kill Yod's master, and then they go after Yod -- a policeman who is set to marry a beautiful woman named Candy (Odette Henriette Jacqmin). The attack leaves Candy dead -- she never picks up a pistol like in the film posters. Her little sister has broken legs.

Yod and the crippled girl fall into a river and wash up on the shores of the idyllic Cozy House, an orphan ranch where the boys all learn Muay Thai and the girls are taught traditional Thai dancing. Yardtip Rajpal plays the sweet dance teacher and a possible new love interest for Yod. Comedian Kotee Aramboy, misshapen, Sangtong-like character Suthon Wechkama (the madman from 13 Beloved) and lovable lug Sonthaya Chitmanee from Muay Thai Chaiya are among the comic relief. But when the time comes for them to put up their dukes and fight, they quickly fold. Even the Muay Thai-trained boys are unceremoniously mowed down, though their teacher, played by a very brave Kowit Wattanakul, at least tries to put up a convincing challenge.

A subplot involving a gangster rivalry is one of the raveled threads in this story. A foreign kingpin, played with Brando-channeling relish by old Hollywood musical hand David Winters, is apparently in charge of the three foreign fighters. Kirk Schiller is involved somehow as a turncoat go-between the foreign mob and some hilariously moustachioed Thai gangsters who run an illegal boxing club.

The movie is actually quite violent, with much bloodshed and many grisly deaths. But rather than feeling any sympathy or sadness for the dispatched characters, there is only a sense of relief -- for the actors, because they are no longer in the movie, or for the story, which becomes less and less encumbered and that much closer to ending.

There's even cannibalism! Apparently, if you eat your tattoo master, you will gain his powers. So it was probably not a good idea for the evil eyepatch-wearing tattoo master to reveal that secret to his foreign trio. They leap on the guy like a pack of bloodthirsty hyenas. Bad for the master, but good for us.

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