When Tony Jaa was announced as being part of the cast of the upcoming "Fast and Furious 7," die-hard action fans the world over got very, very excited. While the actor is barely known in the United States (despite some intrepid distributors' very best efforts), he is one of the more exciting performers in action films today, nimbly combining the physical comedy of Jackie Chan with the hard-nosed brutalism of Chow Yun-Fat; he's an actor whose death-defying feats are colored with subtlety and emotional grace. So it's with some excitement that Jaa has chosen to make a sequel to perhaps his very best film, 2005's "The Protector." Both films feature Jaa going to extraordinary lengths to hunt down his stolen elephant, and while "The Protector 2" loses some of the lustre of the first film, it's still a frequently thrilling, sometimes downright jaw-dropping extravaganza from start to finish.
Martial arts films are never known for their particularly deep narratives and "The Protector 2" is no exception. At the start of the film, Kham (Jaa) is teaching young kids in the small village where he now lives, different martial arts poses, based on his beloved pet elephant Khon. (They, of course, just want him to show them out to kick people's asses). While there's some kind of civil conflict brewing in the larger cities — alluded to in a bizarre, credits-based prologue — out in the country, things are pretty okay.
That is, of course, until a sleazy trader Suchart's (Adinan Buntanaporn, channeling a "sweaty Danny Huston" vibe) visits Kham and asks to buy Khon. Kham flatly refuses but, bad guys being bad guys, they steal the elephant anyway. Kham tracks the traders back to Bangkok, although by the time he gets to Suchart's house, he's already been killed… leading the authorities to believe Kham was responsible. Also, in one of the story's more convoluted plot threads, it leads Suchart's two nieces, Ping-ping (Yanin "Jeeja" Vismitananda) and Sue-sue (Theerada Kittiseriprasert), to vow revenge against Kham.
Now throw in RZA as a gangster/ringleader of an underground boxing ring (Keanu Revees was better in "Man of Tai Chi"), who has a pronounced scar slashed across his face, chews on a diamond-encrusted toothpick, and mumbles casually about the events of the first movie, and a pseudo-conspiracy plot straight out of a lesser episode of "24" where the elephant is being used to dissolve a peace accord, and you've pretty much got a handle on the kind of nonsensical lunacy that "The Protector 2" is positively overstuffed with.
Not that story much matters here (about halfway through, we gave up trying to figure out what was happening almost entirely), because the action set pieces are often captivating. The first "Protector" had some truly amazing moments, with the action sometimes captured in long, serpentine tracking shots that seem to go on for minutes on end. "The Protector 2" takes a choppier approach to the staging of some of the set pieces, but that oddly enough doesn't lessen their impact. Sometimes, too, it takes bold chances, like when a particular stunt is captured via a tiny GoPro camera attached to Jaa's body (JaaCam?), giving the movie, for just a moment, a jittery, grainy, lived-in feel that it could have benefited from more of.
In Thailand "The Protector 2" was released in 3D, which becomes immediately apparent by the amount of things that are unnecessarily rendered via computer graphics and then jutted unconvincingly at the camera. Occasionally the cleverness of the action set pieces is undermined by the movie's commitment to some truly awful CGI, like during an early rooftop motor-cross sequence and during a climactic fight that is ingeniously staged inside a parking structure so that a fight happening on a higher level that ends in large barrels of gasoline being dumped out and set on fire actually effects the fight sequence going on in a lower level. This sequence is so, so cool but the overabundance of tacky computer-generated flames doesn't do it any favors.
Most of the time, though, the action in "The Protector 2" is nothing less than top notch. Jaa is an unparalleled martial artist, whose intensity never seems to waver. He's got a short, severe haircut, high cheekbones, and eyes that glisten with a kind of hyper-aware intelligence. He's not just punching the guy who is standing in front of them, but you can witness him calculating how he is going to beat up all of the other guys in the same room directly after. Jaa also has a great sense of comedic timing, and while he's not as out-and-out goofy as Jackie Chan, there are flashes of humor in even the most brutal sequence that lets you in on the fun that everyone who made this movie was clearly having. It's exhilarating to watch, and easily trumps anything in this weekend's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," a movie that cost literally hundreds of millions of dollars more than "The Protector 2" and doesn't have a fraction of this film's wow factor.
Director Prachya Pinkaew, returning from the first film, knows how ludicrous this all is, as well. At one point a cop character from the original film asks Jaa "You've lost your elephant again? What is it, a kitten?" It's insane to think that one film was built around a man searching for his missing elephant, let alone a budding action franchise. But it's because of this goofiness, not in spite of it, that the actually works. If "The Protector 2" was dour, then it would also become totally unconvincing. Sure, it's silly, but it's also wildly entertaining and sprinkled with some nice emotional beats. As long as Tony Jaa keeps losing his elephant, we'll keep showing up to watch him track it down. [B+]