Written by Caballero Oscuro
After Ong-Bak broke open the door for Thai martial arts movies in the U.S., and The Protector (aka Tom Yum Goong) drove an elephant through that door, director Prachya Pinkaew’s latest effort to pull off the trifecta falls a bit flat. Of course his previous two films starred the spectacular Tony Jaa, while this time out he relies on newcomer “Jeeja” Yanin Vismistananda, but even setting aside the change in leads the action set pieces just aren’t up to the standards of his previous work.
Jeeja plays an autistic young girl named Zen who sets out on a quest to collect on her mother’s past debts in order to pay for mom’s hospital bills. Mom used to be a gangster of some sort but apparently didn’t follow through on her accounts receivables too vigorously, leaving behind a book filled with details about criminal deadbeats on the hook for payment due. Of course deadbeats don’t pay up too easily, so when young Zen comes knocking the gangsters start fighting, leading to much opportunity for martial mayhem.
Pinkaew criminally uses Zen’s autism as a flimsy plot device, trying to pass off her savant-like fighting ability as some kind of new “drunken master” style that actually caused this viewer more annoyance than entertainment. Zen has no formal martial arts training, but instead picks up her skills by watching old movies on TV. The basic setup of every fight is that Zen stumbles into a crime den looking like a strong gust of air would tip her over and sounding like an escapee from a mental ward, then proceeds to kick every ass in the place when her payment request is denied. Since the film isn’t wall-to-wall fights, that leaves lots of screen time to be filled with Zen’s grating character. There was absolutely no compelling reason to give the character a disability other than as some kind of sexist explanation of how a girl could fight so well. In reality, Jeeja trained for many months to get battle-ready for the film, but Pinkaew’s fantasy construct leaves no room for her exceptional efforts.
As a performer, young Jeeja is dangerously low on the charisma scale and a bit wooden in her fighting as well. Even after all of her training and setting aside her character’s limitations, she seems to lack a certain fluidity that would really sell the action, looking like she’s trying too hard to hit her marks at times. However, she clearly devoted every fiber of her being to putting up the best performance she could muster and she does have quite a number of amazing stunts that make the film worth a look. The best sequence is saved for the end, where she fights baddies on a vertical battlefield leaping from balcony to balcony on a building exterior.