Tony Jaa beats up a lot of people en route to saving an elephant in "The Protector 2." Credit: Magnet Releasing
'The Protector 2' Director: Prachya Pinkaew Stars: Tony Jaa, Rza Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
Can a Tony Jaa movie still work if it’s frequently punctuated by laughably ugly CGI? When the Thai ass-kicker first grabbed the globe’s attention with 2003’s “Ong-Bak,” his shtick was that he used no wires, no special effects. He was the real deal — a bona fide martial artist master whose moves were so killer that the film actually replayed them from multiple angles, as if to italicize and underline that they were indeed not fake. The two “Ong-Bak” sequels — which, bizarrely, took the series from the present day to the 15th century — slipped some movie magic into the real-life stunts. But they had nothing on his sequel to “The Protector,” which cheats moves that no human could ever do.
For the record, Jaa does bring the pain. There’s a heaping handful of smackdown moments, as well as plenty of plot. Stories in martial arts films are rarely worth mentioning, though this is too insane to ignore. Jaa plays a country boy whose elephant is stolen by a gangster (Rza, who also popped up in another martial arts extravaganza, “Brick Mansions”). His attempts to get it back lead to droves of henchman steamrolling his way, plus two pixie sisters, plus acupuncture needles used as weapons.
“Ong-Bak” and the first “Protector” — to which this is a quasi-sequel that’s also a quasi-remake, like “Evil Dead II” — boasted a jaw-dropping set piece each, the latter a one-take long take on a staircase. This has a bit that starts with dudes on motorcycles invading an apartment, relocates to a roof, hits the road, deposits Jaa on a truck then ends after some 10 frantic minutes. Somewhere in the middle Jaa jumps over a clothesline and fells two guys while doing his own version of the Bruce Lee howl. But such impressive choreography gets mixed with a bit where he jumps in front of a subway train — an impossible move that’s been clearly and poorly faked.
“The Protector 2” keeps swinging between these highs and lows, amazing viewers with Jaa’s dexterity and then ruining the good will with shockingly terrible special effects. (One character’s death by fire is in fact a still picture of the guy with flames that wouldn’t look out of place in “Birdemic.”) It’s a maddening film, one that exploits Jaa’s abilities one moment then second guesses them the next. There are enough YouTube-able bits to make it worth your time, plus a few decent throwaway gags. (One poor villain gets his head run over by a car tire — only to be saved by his bike helmet.) But it keep undermining it with bad effects, and a bit with a story that’s distractingly, sometimes inventively stupid.
This is doubly a shame as “The Protector 2” is Jaa’s comeback film (and reunites him with “Ong-Bak” director Prachya Pinkaew, who also handled the delightful “Chocolate”). In 2010 Jaa dropped off the face of the earth, shacking up as a monk. He was bound to return, and when he did he was instantly swooped up for the next “Fast & Furious” and “Raid” entries. He may wind up third banana in the former, as Gina Carano did. But they won’t abuse him the way “The Protector 2” regularly does.