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Elephant White

tn_elephantwhiteDid you know that Prachya Pinkaew, the director of ONG BAK and CHOCOLATE, was making an English language movie starring Djimon Hounsou and Kevin Bacon? I didn’t either until a screener wound up in my hands. It’s yet another weird, internationally produced DTV action movie from Millennium Films. (This is an early heads-up review – it comes out May 17th on DVD.)

Hounsou plays Curtie Church, a mercenary hired to take out some sex traffickers in Bangkok to avenge the death of a guy (who played a similar character in THE MARINE 2)’s daughter. Turns out Church being manipulated to start a war between two gangs, so he gets caught in the middle. A young girl from the brothel follows him to his bell tower hideout. To protect his mission he gags her and ties her to a pole, only to eventually (you better sit down and swallow all liquids first, this will surprise you) soften up and start trying to help her out.

There are alot of cool things about this character. Of course he’s got the ol’ heart of gold, but you gotta dig to get to it more than with some movie heroes. He’s gruff and doesn’t talk much and doesn’t mind manhandling the girl to protect his own ass. And obviously he’s an elite warrior, a one-man-army, that’s why they can feel confident hiring just one of him. He does some bombings, some close range gun battles, some hand-to-hand and a whole lot of sniping.

mp_elephantwhiteI think maybe he has some kind of hypnotic powers over people too because I can’t figure out why they never think to look for him in the bell tower where all his bullets keep coming from.

Hounsou is great for this type of role. Physically he’s intimidating and comes off appropriately unfriendly. I’m not sure if he’d have the charisma to play a more funny, lovable type of action hero, but he’s born to play mysterious, scary badasses of this type. I hope he gets some more action vehicles like this instead of just having to play the exotic sidekick or villain. (Maybe Millennium could put him in LIMITS OF CONTROL 2: BURMA RISING). He’s interesting to watch going through the procedures, setting up his attacks, preparing his weapons. The belltower is between the brothel and a Buddhist temple, a constant reminder of his sins, etc. But it’s also handy because when he needs to hammer pieces of a rifle together he syncs up with the monks hitting their bells so nobody will hear him.

Bacon plays Church’s old CIA contact who’s now a sleazy arms dealer. His character is credited as “Jimmy the Brit,” which blows my theory that he was doing an Australian accent. But I’ll chalk that up to my own ignorance and not Bacon’s lack of success. I admire Bacon as an actor who seems willing to give any role his full efforts. This isn’t one of his top roles ever but it’s pretty awesome to see him playing a type of character that’s usually played by a nobody in a Millennium production. And he’s obviously having fun.

Like other Pinkaew movies (and Thai cinema in general) it wears its heart on its sleeve. Not only does it have alot of Buddhist spiritual elements, but it ends with text about what a bad problem sex trafficking is. I wonder if RAMBO (part 4) got the idea from Thai cinema to combine violent action with outrage about real world atrocities? They all seem to combine fun action with long scenes of crying. There’s also an elephant in here, as the title implies. It’s not featured as prominently as in the Tony Jaa movies and I think it’s CGI, and also I don’t really understand what its significance is, but one of the gangsters has a white elephant. If you’re into that.

Come to think of it I’m not sure why it’s ELEPHANT WHITE and not WHITE ELEPHANT. Maybe there should be a comma in there: ELEPHANT, WHITE?

With its interesting leads, Bangkok locations and weird touches, ELEPHANT WHITE is worth watching for DTV action fans. But it’s bad news too if all the makers of amazing Thai action movies are gonna want to branch out into movies like this. It will kill their reputation and their unique qualities like Hollywood did to John Woo and his generation’s. Pinkaew does bring a distinct flavor to it, but what’s the point of him and his incredibly talented stunt crews making movies that don’t try to live up to the standards of the ones they make for Thai audiences? Unless you can get Kevin Bacon to fall off a building, bounce off various ledges and hit the ground in one non-CGI shot then I don’t think this is your true calling, Mr. Pinkaew. Do you want to be HARD BOILED or BROKEN ARROW?

To be fair the action scenes are better than in some movies, but they’re not at all what anybody would want from the director of ONG BAK. Nobody’s gonna use the word “spectacular” for any of these scenes. The best one is just a shootout where his gun is so powerful that it sends everybody he hits flying through the air. That’s a fun scene but it’s not the side-of-the-building fight in CHOCOLATE or the market chase in ONG BAK or the continous-shot stairway battle in TOM YUM GOONG/THE PROTECTOR/GIVE ME BACK MY ELEPHANT. If making English language movies means leaving behind the incredible drive, skills, fearlessness and oneupmanship that led to those scenes then fuck English language. He can speak complete gibberish if he wants. I hope he got a bit of money for this one and now can go back and try to somehow top what he did in CHOCOLATE.

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 at 12:02 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

31 Responses to “Elephant White”

  1. “If making English language movies means leaving behind the incredible drive, skills, fearlessness and oneupmanship that led to those scenes then fuck English language.”

    Well, he did: “Elephant White” is grammatically correct for Thai, but not English. Thus, Prachya Pinkaew fucked English language, right up there on the box cover and everything.

  2. I haven’t seen this and won’t comment on the film, Vern, but on this:

    “But it’s bad news too if all the makers of amazing Thai action movies are gonna want to branch out into movies like this. It will kill their reputation and their unique qualities like Hollywood did to John Woo and his generation’s.”

    But wasn’t a large part of Woo’s decline in the Hollywood years down to his own self-indulgence? I’m thinking of three films in particular: “Broken Arrow” (fun but silly), “Mission Impossible 2” (fun but craptastic) and “Face: Off” (a personal favorite of mine when I’m in the mood to just turn my brain off and indulge in an over-the-top testosterone binge).

    “Face: Off” in particular we’ve discussed recently, and I made the point that the only scenes I didn’t like in it were the opening and closing action sequences. To me those sequences have every hallmark of Woo’s worst excesses when it comes to action direction. The guy’s best films are tight relatively low-budget action movies like “The Killer”, and as a result of their success, he got offered everything he could possibly want. And he didn’t quite know what to do with it.

    Or, to use the most awesome similie I’ve come up with yet: it’s like taking Leonardo da Vinci out of Italy, transporting him to Los Angeles, and saying to him: “Ok, you’ve done fantastic work with the easel and brush. Here’s a motherfucking paint cannon, now we can REALLY see what you got.”

  3. “If making English language movies means leaving behind the incredible drive, skills, fearlessness and oneupmanship that led to those scenes then fuck English language.” The finest words uttered on international action film-making by anyone in recent years. Nice one Vern – words to live by.

    There are some international combos that work, and those give me hope. If you haven’t seen MERANTAU yet you really, really should – Indonesian martial arts directed by a Welsh director, of all things. Personally loved it, and the director’s blog for his next film really sounds amazing: http://theraid-movie.blogspot.com/

  4. Hugh: I actually saw Merantau at the New York Asian Film Festival last year. The plot was the same old damsel in distress, sex trafficking again, but the fight scenes were gritty and real.

    More Indonesian Martial Arts movies, please. But kick it up a notch with the scripts.

  5. “That’s a fun scene but it’s not the side-of-the-building fight in CHOCOLATE or the market chase in ONG BAK or the continous-shot stairway battle in TOM YUM GOONG/THE PROTECTOR/GIVE ME BACK MY ELEPHANT. If making English language movies means leaving behind the incredible drive, skills, fearlessness and oneupmanship that led to those scenes then fuck English language.”
    Are those sort of expectations really fair though when the western movies will undoubtedly cast more for name value than action chops, meaning we get more actors-trained-for-action playing the leads than stuntmen-martial-artists-acting? Under those conditions, of course it’s not going to be good.

  6. Paul, Woo is responsible for his own decline, but I also think the Hollywood machine has been a big part of it. HARD TARGET is famous for being cut to death to avoid an NC-17 rating in the states, and a lot the Woo touches and feel were lost in the American cut of the film. I have also heard that MI:2 was taken away from Woo in editing. I am not disputing that Woo can be self indulgent, but I don’t think that is the main factor in his decline.

  7. Wabalicious Monkeynuts

    February 16th, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I’m looking forward to this one, i loved Tom Yung Goong, Ong Bak and Chocolate, but i don’t expect as much from this. I like assassin movies on the whole, and Djimon Honsou, so this is one i’m quite excited to see.

    I agree that Woo really disappeared up his own arse for quite some time. How can someone go from the insanely violent majesty of Hard Boiled to something as pedestrian as Paycheck in such a short time? I haven’t seen Red Cliff yet, but i’ve got the international version on Blu Ray, so will hopefully check it out soon.

    Vern, i emailed you about a Steven Seagal documentary that aired in the UK during the week, i just found a link to download it and sent it a few moments ago, it’s pretty funny, and Seagal surprises by only being a dick about 50% of the time. Worth a watch for a connoisseur of the great man’s work such as yourself.

  8. Wabalicious Monkeynuts

    February 16th, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Charles, i managed to see a workprint version of Hard Target about 2 years ago, a few black & white scenes, and some scenes of animals being slaughtered; while Mr Fouchon plays the piano, it shows shit like a lion killing a gazelle (if memory serves), an elephant being killed and so on. It sounds a bit harsh, but the way it’s done is quite interesting, it seems to give a view into the mind of a total psychopath who takes absolute pleasure in the kill. There are a few bits missing though, which is the only downside. The final fight between Lance and Van Damme is much shorter, and just not as good. It’s worth seeing for curiosity’s sake, but i was slightly disappointed after waiting so long to see it. The quality was pretty ropey in parts.

    Mission Impossible 2, what can i say? John Woo and his dancing cars scene, my God. My friend said the trick is to fast forward any time a Spanish guitar plays, and you have a half decent film. Maybe he’s got a point. Woo’s a legend, but has his fair share of trash too. AICN have a link to a never-shown Lost In Space pilot he made in the early 90s. I had to stop it after a few minutes before i felt the need to pull my own eyes out.

  9. Charles – I think it’s both. Or more accurately, I think it’s the freedoms that Hollywood has granted him, rather than the restrictions, that have made his recent movies less than his older ones. Woo is like any other director, his individualities are great as long as they’re in the service of the film. Once he starts to use them for his own indulgence, things start to go wrong.

    Although to be fair, I think there may have been other egos than John Woo’s involved when it came to the “slow-mo closeup on Tom Cruise’s hair blowing in the wind” shots of “Mission: Impossible 2”.

  10. If there is any movie screaming for a director’s cut to hit blu ray, it’s Hard Target 2. Where are the internet petitions for that? Obviously you want to keep the theatrical ending but you want to keep in everything else. What they should even do is pay to use the Aliens music like they do in the work print to make the final sequence even more awesome. The original death of Pick is one of the finest examples of over kill (pun completely intended) in cinema history.

  11. Anyone wanting a Thai action fix should check out “CLASH” starring Johnny Nguyen (The Rebel, Force of Five). It’s essentially a remake of Ronin, but with more fight scenes.

  12. Huh. I was unaware Hard Target was cut, and didn’t think the edit I usually saw on TV came across as such. Reading what the differences are, I kinda want to see that version.

  13. Stu, I think it is the American version that is the most cut, because they trimmed a lot of the more graphic violence out to get it to a R rating. If you have a foreign version of the DVD it has the longer more violent cut. There is also a work print floating around out there that is even longer then the foreign theatrical release of the film.

  14. John Woo + several years mastering the paint cannon == Red Cliff 1&2 (international version)

  15. My point with John Woo is that he (and several other prominent Hong Kong directors of the time) came to Hollywood, fans of their movies were excited but alot of the life’s blood of what made everyone love them was sucked out of their movies. Sure, some of this can be blamed on the individual men and their human flaws or whatever but what I’m saying is that the methods, circumstances and expectations of the industry is so different that it is impossible to make what they were making before, even with more money.

    In both cases a big part of it just has to do with how stunts are done. Alot of the crazy shit they do in these movies simply would not be allowed here, it’s too dangerous. It also has to do with scheduling, and Woo being able to spend weeks planning and filming action scenes in HK that he’d have to do in a day or two here.

    I think it’s a good comparison – if he wants to become a Hollywood director it’s probly good for his life but bad for his movies in the way it was for Woo’s.

  16. Well put Vern. I was watching the special features on the HARD BOILED Blu and Woo talked about how Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) got shards of glass in his eyes because they used real glass and it was braking dangerously close to his face. He was almost blinded. Woo also admits to regularly endangering Yun-Fat. In HARD BOILED he asked him to be dangerously close to the explosion while shooting the hallway escape shot from the hospital. Like Vern said you could never get away with shots like that in Hollywood. Also, there is a cultural language to cinema that like any other language is subject to a regional dialect. There are elements of Woo’s HK films that are in stark contrast to what an American audience especially an action film audience is conditioned to expect. Hollywood gave Woo a chance to make films on a larger finical scale, but at the same time he gave up a great deal of freedom, and that is reflected in his Hollywood films.

  17. Kind of off topic, but has anyone seen the workprint of Cliffhanger. Wish they restored it for the bluray. Saw the stuff they edited, cut out. Made more sense because a few scenes in the movie made no sense, like when Stallone is under water, and shoots that clip-gun thing threw Travers and he falls into ice, made no sense. But they wanted to avoid NC-17 by editing down violence. Thought id just mention that because I remembered bout it after the Hard Target workprint.

  18. Vern – yeah, I can get behind your general point. Let’s say that *being in* Hollywood caused Woo to lose his way a bit then. I agree with Charles’ specific point – there’s no doubt Woo lost the freedom he’s previously had to throw his actors into danger – but not the general one, because I don’t think the loss of those freedoms was necessarily the cause of his decline. Maybe a catalyst of it.

  19. I have to say, I also think the KIND of stunts Woo (and others) turn to in their Hollywood careers changed the game. On a Hong Kong Budget, there’s only so much you can do with huge exposions, vehicular chases, and that sort of thing. The stunts and setpieces are amazing, but because they had to work on a smallish scale compared to Hollywood movies and hence had to make smaller seem more impressive. Once Woo got to play with fighter jets and shit, the small-scale action he was so amazing and ambitious at sort of got left behind in favor of the whiz-bang spectacle of effects escalation. Problem is, you throw enough money at something and you can always top that stuff- its the imagination and daring that make his early films so captivating. That, if you ask me, is what he lost when given a bigger budget.

  20. Mr. Subtlety, you make a good point. However, I feel the real issue is that a larger budget means a bigger investment from the studio, and an expectation of a greater return on their investment, and studios do not have patience for doing things different despite your track record. More money on the table means that you are allowed to take even less chances and you are forced to play in even more by the book. I don’t think Woo became a worse action director while in Hollywood he just squandered his skills on less interesting projects and made films that lacked the little touches (moody atmospheric pacing and small character moments) that we came to know from his HK work.

  21. I think that a lot of great directors coming to Hollywood sometimes fail, because they are not used to that enormous monster of a machine to deal with and the logistics that goes along. And with lowbudget-movies and smaller crew a lot more is required creatively to come up with stuff.
    Not to mention you don´t have to cater the investors, sponsors,producers and shit. A lot of people who wants to have their say and it waters down the product. I don´t know. I may be wrong about this.

  22. Why just John Woo? Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Chow Yun-Fat, Ringo Lam, Michelle Yeoh, and a few others I’m forgetting came to Hollywood to make mediocre to crappy movies. That certainly favors the different system over personal hubris argument.

    I think the only one that brought it from a creative standpoint was Tsui Hark. Unfortunately, Double Team and Knock/Off are like Matthew Barney movies. If you understand why they work and what they are going for, then they’re great, but most people have no idea what the fuck is going on. HK was just too weird and awesome for the masses, so Woo had to replace CY-F with Travolta and Tom Cruise. What the fuck was he supposed to do?

  23. BTW, this is how you know the American version is all cut up to shreds.

    In the theatrical cut Wilford Brimley gets shot in the right leg. The next time we cut to him suddenly the gunshot was in the left leg. Also, in the trailer, the dude at the beginning jumps into the shed but in the theatrical release the shed just blows up.

    The work print also has the dude at the beginning throwing one of those gas cans at one of the biker dudes blowing him up. It helped show that he was a bit more resourceful than just a standard homeless dude.

    I understand Vern’s point but I’d much rather focus on the awesomness of Hard Target.

  24. Yeah, actually it’s hard to think of many modern directors that have excelled after coming to Hollywood. This is one industry where I am strongly in favor of stricter immigration laws. Keep the talent in their own country where they have a chance of doing some good for the world. (Except for Mexicans. In fact, some forward-thinking studio head should probably just confiscate Del Toro and Cuarón’s visas.) This is why I love Johnnie To. He has no doubt turned down numerous offers to make Van Damme films because he knows the world needs him in Hong Kong, cranking out masterpieces.

  25. Wait, there’s a Hard Target 2? I was unaware of this. Does it star JCVD and why is it awesome?

  26. B.R. Baraka: agreed re. scripts, which is why paring things down for his follow-up, THE RAID, sounds awesome to me.

    On John Woo being edited: one of the consistent rumours I’ve heard working in the DVD business in the UK was that British editor Stuart Baird, who has edited numerous action movies as well as directing U.S. Marshals and Star Trek: Nemesis, was for many years Paramount’s go-to guy for re-editing summer blockbusters where the studio wasn’t happy with the director’s cut. Apparently he did enough of these to be allowed to handle the studio’s then-prize franchise Star Trek, which he promptly killed until the Abrams reboot. Anyway, if you look at the credits of M.I.-2, somewhere well below where editors are normally credited he gets a Special Thanks To credit, which I then also noticed on a couple of other flicks he was rumoured to have re-cut. As I said, a rumour, but one I’ve heard from several quarters over the years.

    Hard Target Workprint: makes much more sense in opening action scene and car chase, but I think the final showdown is handled better in the cut currently available on European DVD, which is still longer than the cut I saw originally in Swiss cinemas.

    Necros: totally agree re. Cliffhanger workprint, really should be the version on Blu alongside the theatrical. Much clearer.

  27. It should be noted that without John Woo coming to America and having success, there wouldn’t be other Asian directors exported to Hollywood. No Woo, No Ang Lee.

    (Hell Akira Kurosawa, maybe the GREATEST director of all-time, couldn’t get a Hollywood job outside of a brief employment with TORA TORA TORA during his suicidal stage in life.)

  28. Didn’t John Woo and Ang Lee both start making English language films about the same time?

  29. I submit WINDTALKERS as World’s Worst Woo.

  30. And Ang Lee made the awesome RIDE WITH THE DEVIL. Go figure those two.

  31. I can’t believe none of you have seen this film. I actually think Vern undersells it.

    In the future, if some genius were to do an amazing “Black Dynamite” style loving spoof of post 1990 action cinema, it would be essentially identical to “Elephant White.”

    I thought it was hilarious and amazing in all the best ways. Who knew Djimon Hounsou wanted to be Seagal? (and that he is actually an awful actor, or at least one who is only effective shouting and crying?) Who knew Bacon got stung by the Madoff thing THIS bad?

    The tone is so insane and special – the lurching from sentimental preaching to absurd bombastic violence. Then there’s all this crazy magic in it. And the twist ending? Followed by a main character turning to camera to explain the subtext of the film.

    And I don’t mean to be condescending – it’s fantastic. In the thai movies these things kind of drag on the film (although they do give them a unique earnestness) – but the inclusion of Western stars, posturing and vanity gives these elements a surreal quality.

    Anyway, see it.

    PS, VERN – apparently the writer on this had something to do with Rambo 4, so you were right to sense a connetion.

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