Aug 24, 2010

Martial Arts Mini-Reviews

DIR: David Chaing

This directorial effeort from Chaing (more frequently a cinematographer) probably has more weight if you know some Chinese history. It's set during World War 2 and has a small group of resistance fighters opposing the Japanese army, who want to set up a poison gas factory in a small, newly occupied, town. The performances are broad; shining heroes vs eeevil Japanese baddies, but MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS has quite a bit going for it.

Chaing keeps the pace up, close to frantic at times, and in 88 minutes doles out a lot of action both violent and comedic. Despite the rather perfunctory story and performances, the cast are also quite engaging, getting by more on charm and charisma than any real acting ability. Richard Ng is fun as a drunk who gets swept up in the action, the beautiful Cindy Lau has some great moments to show off her martial arts, and makes for a sweet, if not helpless, ingenue and Derek Yee is solid and charming as the hero.

However, it's Michelle Yeoh, in an early starring vehicle, who holds the attention. She's very young here, but already the charisma that she'd bring to films like WING CHUN and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON shines through. Though she's not a trained martial artist Yeoh's on screen fighting is fluent and hard hitting (her prop use is especially brilliant), her years as a dancer and talent for physical mimicry (as well as a willingness to do her own stunt work) serving her well.

MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS isn't quite a classic, but it's an enjoyable movie. There are some technical failings (even in the Cantonese version the dubbing is appalling, and some of the editing isn't great) but the action is great and the film as a whole is always engaging.

DIR: Prachya Pinkaew

Martial arts films have often been laughed aat for the thinness of their stories, but Tony Jaa's movies really deserve those giggles. Okay, ONG BAK (village boy goes to Bangkok when his village's idol is stolen, retrieves it through kicking people) has a more complex story than TOM YUM GOONG ("Give me back my elephants!"), but not by much.

The thing is, to denigarte ONG BAK for its lack of little things like a well thought out story, compelling performances, or any sort of dramatic weight would be to completely miss the point. This isn't so much a story as it is a breathtaking showreel for tsar Tony Jaa, his stunt team, action director Panna Rittikrai and director Prachya Pinkaew. After 30 minutes or so of exposition and scene setting, ONG BAK explodes into life, and though it becomes little more than a series of tenuously linked fight and stunt sequences the invention, style, skill, and power on display is such that the story could involve the reading of the Thai phone book and it this would still be thrilling cinema.

The action is among the best ever filmed. An early chase sequence shows off Jaa's amazing agility and timing (catch the awesome flip he does between two sheets of glass), but it's the raw power of the Muay Thai fighting style, perhaps best seen in what has been called the Fight Club sequence that was really new and excting when this film was first released.

As an actor, Jaa's flatness can be forgiven, but sadly he lacks the presence of a Jackie Chan or a Bruce Lee, and much of the time you do feel that you're watching a stuntman rather than a star. The support is better; Petchai Wongkamlao and Pumwaree Yodkamol are both funny and charming as the city slickers along for the ride with Jaa, and that keeps the downtime between the action scenes bearable, if never especially engaging. Fortunately the film is chock full of action, so it never slows down long enough to get really dull.

For me, ONG BAK has since been bettered by the same team's vehicles for Jeeja Yanin, especially the jaw dropping CHOCOLATE, but this was the west's introduction to Thai martial arts cinema, the film from which the rest have flowed, and as well as bringing us alot of quality films since, ONG BAK holds up as a genuinely astonishing showcase for thai martial arts, if not a great film.


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