Tom Yum Goong (2005)
It has been scientifically proven that elephants are awesome, and only the insanely cynical would doubt Tony Jaa's awesomeness after Ong Bak... so the formula Tony Jaa + Elephants seems like a foolproof plan. Or is it? Well, yes and no... TOM YUM GOONG certainly has moments of awesomeness, and they are pretty much all the moments when either Tony Jaa or one of his elephants are cut loose... along with a certain mud bath scene. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is... well, often less than awesome :(
ONG BAK was nearly perfect as a martial arts/action movie... the plot is simple but effective, and delivered with a tongue in cheek humour that lets us know it's not meant to be high art. The story mostly just serves to pace the action scenes, and does a fine job of it. TOM YUM GOONG takes almost exactly the same story, moves it to Australia, and somehow loses the tightness of pace and much of the humour en route. The location also introduces some bad English dialogue, which may have been an attempt to make the film more friendly to the international market, but is more likely to have the opposite effect.
Still, there are elephants - though they don't get as much screen time as they deserve (elephants are great actors, amongst their many aspects of awesomeness). And there are a fairly good number of scenes where Tony Jaa gets to "bust a move". The action scenes try to evolve the brutal dynamism of ONG BAK and introduce some more experimental moments. In particular, there's a sequence following Jaa up 4 or 5 floors of a fancy hotel-like place that's shot in a single take/camera - and many other scenes that feature long takes where Jaa's physical skill is proved to be 100% genuine beyond any doubt. Unfortunately (and perhaps ironically) these long takes sometimes come across as more choreographed and artificial than would be the case with heavier editing.
The bone-crunching rawness of the fights is even greater here than it was in Ong Bak, with some really really painful looking moves being inflicted on stuntmen. Tony does a lot of interesting moves - not so flamboyant as in Ong Bak, but impressive. There's one particular fight that revolves around bone breaking and dislocations that is especially creative and impressive... vastly better than the much-hyped grappling moves Donnie Yen works into SPL.
One of the highlights in ONG BAK was the tournament sequence, where Tony Jaa takes on a succession of fighters with their own unique styles. A similar sequence occurs towards the end of TOM YUM GOONG, though it's dropped into the plot much less logically. One of his opponents is a Capoeira fighter, and their match is really impressive. A wushu fighter with sword is less interesting, but gigantic wrestler Nathan Jones proves to be a good adversary.
When your debut is a film as astonishing as ONG BAK, and you become an international star overnight, producing a follow up that doesn't disappoint is a next to impossible challenge. Jaa and director Pracha Pinkyaew made a pretty good attempt, but TOM YUM GOONG is definitely a lesser film. On the bright side, this means that expectations should be back down to realistic levels for their next collaboration - lets hope they manage to at least meet them :)