real title: TOM-YUM-GOONG
should be the title: WHERE ARE MY ELEPHANTS?
Well, I can’t say I didn’t know what I was stepping into. The import DVD of the newest Tony Jaa movie (from the same director as ONG-BAK) has been circling around forever and a day now but I never got around to seeing it. Now those gangsters Bob and Noodles Weinstein have unleashed their bastardized and cut-up version across the screens of America. I knew it was probaly gonna be dubbed, I knew it was shortened (that’s what the Weinsteins do: buy other people’s movies, then cut parts out of them), and I knew it was re-scored.
And it was actually that last part that reeled me in like a sucker fish. Because in the newspaper ads it says in giant letters, almost as big as the title: “MUSIC BY RZA.”
I knew it was wrong to take somebody’s movie and re-score it just to sell tickets to marks like me, but still. Muay thai and RZA beats, right? Sounds like a good Friday afternoon at the Cinerama.
And okay, it was. The movie is definitely worth seeing if you’re a fan of martial arts. It’s very similar to ONG-BAK. Once again Tony Jaa is a naive, rural traditionalist. But instead of the head of a Buddha statue being stolen from his village, it’s two elephants (one adult, one baby) that his family are sworn to protect. This isn’t some gimmick like that movie with Bill Murray. Elephants are very important in Thai culture and history, Jaa comes from a long line of elephant trainers, and he actually owns two elephants in real life. One of his big breaks as a stuntman was as a double for Sammo Hung in a commercial where he had to roll off an elephant’s tusks onto its back, and it’s cool to see him do a few of those types of tricks here.
Language-wise it’s a real mish-mash. Alot of it is in the original Thai, some of it was already in English (since it takes place largely in Sydney, the Vancouver of Asia), then for some reason some parts are dubbed into English. I’m not sure what the thinking is – there is more than enough subtitles to scare away the illiterate neanderthals who they assume all Americans are, so what’s the point of fucking up parts of the movie by dubbing it? Who are you trying to please there?
There was probaly an explanation for how he goes from his father being killed and his elephants getting swiped to facing down the criminals responsible, but if so we’re gonna have to go steal those scenes back from the Weinsteins. ONG-BAK had a generic but nicely executed story to string the fight scenes together, but this one (in its current form) has most of the string cut out so it gets confusing. People will say “Who cares, I just want to see the fights! FIGHT! And PUNCHING!” which is understandable. But the context for these scenes, I’m sure, was already there. It takes more work to cut them out than to not cut them out and now it makes it seem like Thais are a bunch of crazy retards who make movies where suddenly for no reason the main character is in a flooded, burning temple fighting a capoeria guy and a 7 foot bald muscleman. And yes, this scene is awesome but am I crazy to ask for some basic explanation of how the fuck Tony got into this situation? It would be one thing if they made the movie like this in the first place, but to take somebody’s pre-existing, internationally popular movie and turn it into nonsense is kind of cruel.
There aren’t (at least in this version) as many great stunt-related scenes as ONG-BAK. There’s a good high speed boat chase. He runs up a fence or two. There’s not anything comparable to what I thought was the best part of ONG-BAK, the chase through the market where he jumps over and through an series of pointy obstacles (knives, barb wire, etc.) But the fights this time are arguably even better. They don’t seem quite as blunt and hardhitting, but they’re beautifully choreographed and thrilling. Jaa knows the power of posing – the forms his body goes into between the hits is almost more important than the hits themselves. (The same principle as funk music, where the emphasis is on the 1 note. Ask Bootsy about it.)
There are at least three classic fights. Two of them involve Nathan Jones, a scary bald muscleman just shy of 7 feet tall, so he’s more than a foot taller than Jaa. This guy just grabs Jaa by the head and throws him across the room, it’s like some kind of super X-MEN or BLADE battle but you can tell these are both real guys. I guess I saw Nathan Jones in the Jackie Chan movie FIRST STRIKE, but here he has a little more personality than your typical Jackie Chan villain, just because when Tony punches his head ridiculously hard Jones laughs and says “YEAH!” I’d love to see this guy in some more movies – luckily he’s in an upcoming MOST DANGEROUS GAME rip-off from prestigious WWE Films.
The most Jackie Chan-esque fight is the one where he fights a bunch of dudes on rollerblades and bikes, as well as a ROAD WARRIOR type on a 4-wheeler. There’s all kinds of leaping into vans and through windows and up walls and shit. And you know he’s not using wires or stunt doubles, although I’m not sure it’s all real. For example did he really run up that glass window that, in the same shot, the 4-wheeler crashes through? I don’t know, some of that stuff is probaly fake. Not that I’m gonna whine about, just trying to be honest.
But the most impressive scene, and one that will definitely go down in history, is a continuous one-take steadicam shot that goes on for more than four minutes as Tony Jaa fights his way up four stories to the guy he wants to face. As far as I could tell it was really done in one shot, although I’ve read there’s a little digital enhancement as far as broken windows. Still, he beats up a ridiculous amount of people, throwing them down stairs, over ledges, through windows and doors. Someone who has the DVD will have to go through and tally how many people and pieces of furniture are broken. But if you thought that scene in OLDBOY was impressive, well, look out.
And all I could think is THANK GOD this guy was watching Bruce, Jackie and Jet while he was growing up and doing his thing. Jackie and Jet are getting old and compromised now. I think they still have some magic but it clearly can’t last forever. So it’s good to have a possible heir to the throne. Tony’s persona is a little like Jackie’s, because his voice and face are so boyish it’s hard to imagine him playing something besides a naive, innocent hero. But like Jet he’s more serious and he tries to work elements of his Buddhist beliefs into the storylines.
At least as THE PROTECTOR there’s not as much humor as in ONG-BAK, which is kind of a bummer. The guy who played Dirty Balls is back, this time playing an Australian cop who arrests Jaa and then ends up on his side. I hope he always co-stars with Jaa because they play off each other well, they’re opposites. This guy is short and wide, doughy instead of chiseled, out of shape, and his eyes look tired. He doesn’t really get to be funny in this one but he still has a funny air about him. Way to go, Dirty Balls.
I thought there was a Jackie Chan walk-on too, but then I read it was only a lookalike. Sure looked convincing to me. Also, this must not’ve been on purpose but I swear there’s a Rosie O’Donnell celebrity lookalike who you see eating a scorpion with chopsticks.
The miniscule amount of story that is in here is pretty cool. I love that he’s doing it all for the elephants and he has a stronger emotional reaction to the death of an elephant than even the death of his own father. He keeps asking (in Thai) “Where are my elephants?” which is why I think that should be the title. It’s like NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER or GET AWAY FROM MY SISTER. There’s a great moment where he bursts into a big business press conference, baby elephant at his side, and yells “You killed my father! And you stole my elephants!” You don’t see that every day.
So I don’t regret seeing the movie, and if amazing fight scenes is all you need, you shouldn’t miss it. But I do feel bad about supporting these assholes butchering somebody else’s movies this way. They left Disney and started their own company, it’s the perfect opportunity to start over with a clean slate and leave behind the horrible Miramax history of buying foreign films, leaving them on the shelf for years, bullying anybody who tries to sell imports in the U.S., then if they ever release them half the time they cut out half an hour and sometimes they change the title and the music and dub it.
Oh yeah, and as for the music. I was almost willing to let them massacre this thing if it was gonna mean that next great RZA score I’ve been waiting for since GHOST DOG. But yet again, it’s a god damn lie. I’m calling you out Demon Dave style, RZA. THIS IS MY REALITY, RZA. If RZA is gonna score a movie, MAKE SURE RZA FUCKING SCORES THE MOVIE. Let me give you some examples.
- GHOST DOG is RZA scoring a movie. One of the best scores of all time.
- KILL BILL is not RZA scoring a movie. It’s RZA helping compile a real good soundtrack. Okay, I’ll forgive you because it works great for the movie.
- BLADE TRINITY is not RZA scoring a movie. It’s some other dude with RZA adding a little techno.
- UNLEASHED is not RZA scoring a movie. It’s RZA producing two half-assed songs that appear on the credits.
So you’d think I would’ve given up on these claims one or two disappointments ago, but here I was again believing the “MUSIC BY RZA” advertisement. This time he might’ve really done the score (it’s credited to him and another guy, not the original Thai composers, so I assume they collaborated). But it sounds EXACTLY like anybody else’s score. Lots of keyboard violin sounds and MORTAL KOMBAT percussion. Even some cheesy rock guitars here and there. There’s nothing wrong with the score, it’s fine, but nobody in the world would have listened to this and guessed it was by RZA. And when I say nobody in the world, I am including RZA. I am convinced that even he would’ve listened to it and when they told him he made it he’d say, “What? When did I make that? That doesn’t sound like me.”
Which would be fine if they hired him to score it in the first place and he wanted to waste his talents making a generic score and disappointing legions of fans and making babies cry and disgracing the legacies of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the late Ghost Dog. But there was already a score on this movie when they brought him in. WHY IN FUCK’S NAME are you gonna replace the old score with a RZA score UNLESS IT SOUNDS LIKE A GOD DAMN RZA SCORE? And then you advertise that RZA did the score as if some RZA fan is gonna go to hear this score and is gonna be happy with it. Are you DELIBERATELY trying to piss us off?
Here’s what you do, RZA. Your pal Quentin Tarantino put his name on the movie just by adding a “QUENTIN TARANTINO PRESENTS” logo at the beginning. Otherwise, he didn’t change the movie. That’s all you gotta do, “QUENTIN TARANTINO PRESENTS…” and then “ALSO, RZA PRESENTS THIS AS WELL…” That’s all you need, you don’t have to waste your time replacing the score. Unless you’re gonna give us some Wu-Tang.
I’m gonna pull out the big guns here to make my point. I’m gonna pull out DIE HARD. Do you think DIE HARD would be better if they “tightened” most of the story and just had the parts where he blows up the helicopter and the elevator shaft and hangs the guy on the chain? Would that faster pace give you a hard-on? How about if some of the dialogue was dubbed into, say, Japanese, the entire score was redone and some of the classical music was replaced by Asian pop songs? Would that be better, the same, or not as good? Do you think Japanese audiences would like it better that way? If so, would you think they were morons?
A real world example: SHOGUN ASSASSIN. Okay, I can see how that’s a fun movie if you didn’t know where it came from. But they just edited together the violent parts from two separate LONE WOLF AND CUB movies and dubbed that into English. The real movies are equally violent but also beautiful, mythic stories. The whole series made number 2 on our Badass 100 list, that’s just behind the Man With No Name trilogy as the greatest badass cinema of all time. And yet to this day I meet people who won’t watch the actual movies, they just know the version where they cut different swordfights together.
I believe that releasing a movie like this is an attack on multiple cultures. First of all, it’s an attack on Americans because it’s making the assumption that we are morons who are afraid of subtitles and have such short attention spans that we refuse to watch a storyline unfold in our action movies. When Miramax released Jackie Chan’s underrated WHO AM I? they not only cut out some of the storyline, they actually cut out some of the action scenes! What is this fuckin obsession with movies being short? If it’s so important for you to only release short movies then why not only buy short movies? That way you are saving alot of time, energy and resources, and you’re also not being a big fuckin ignorant asshole. Everybody wins.
And then if you’re not tired from mutilating somebody else’s movie you will have more energy to come up with the new American title, and won’t embarass yourself with this “THE PROTECTOR” bullshit. I mean, how braindead are you fuckin people, you got a movie about a guy protecting an elephant and you can’t come up with a better title than that? A title that, by the way, was already used for a widely hated Jackie Chan American vehicle. But I don’t think they’re using it as an homage to that, I think it’s an homage to the time they renamed Jet Li’s MY FATHER IS A HERO as “THE ENFORCER.”
Which brings me to my next point. I think these releases are also kind of racist, or at least xenophobic, or at the very least disrespectful toward the artform of martial arts cinema. These guys don’t give a shit about the characters and stories, they don’t WANT there to be characters or stories. They just want to sell us an Asian minstrel show. They figure if these silly Asian guys can flip around and kick each other fast enough then American morons will eat the shit up. The more generic the better. If it happens to have a distinctive title and concept FOR GOD’S SAKE be sure to hide that in the marketing. MY FATHER IS A HERO starred a little boy who is not shown or mentioned on the box for their version. TOM-YUM-GOONG is about saving elephants and they don’t even show that on the poster or the ads. God forbid somebody remembers which movie this is six months from now. “THE PROTECTOR? Is that the one with Van Damme and Natasha Henstridge? Or the one with the wrestler saving his wife from Robert Patrick? Or is it a John Grisham?”
At the very end of the movie a narrator, who I assume is supposed to be Sgt. Dirty Balls, describes Jaa’s character as an old fashioned guy who cares about tradition. He says that some people may make fun of Tony for that, but he is basically the greatest guy ever so fuck you (paraphrase). Ironically, the Weinsteins are dubbing that into the movie at the same time that they are cynically slicing pieces out of it to make it more modern and fast-paced and retarded. Because nobody likes that old fashioned “let’s explain what the fuck is supposed to be going on in this movie” bullshit. Oh well. I guess that’s the post-post-ironic world we live in.
So see the movie, but if you have access to the real version (or if you’re willing to wait to see if they consider it worthy of inclusion on the American DVD) I’m betting that’s better. Both as a movie and for the soul of America.
P.S. The Brits apparently call it HONOUR OF THE DRAGON, which is arguably even worse.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.