“I’ve been a little disappointed in your last five years,” says big bad Mr. LC (RZA) early in The Protector 2, Tony Jaa’s first new film in years. “That’s not a proper life for a man of your skills.” In the mid-2000s, Jaa seemed like the next big thing in action movies, but after a pair of showcase fight flicks—Ong-Bak (2003) and The Protector (2005), both directed by Prachya Pinkaew—his career fizzled. In the nine years that passed between The Protector and The Protector 2, Jaa starred in only one project, a troubled 15th-century-set prequel to Ong-Bak which had to be split into two movies, Ong-Bak 2 (2008) and Ong-Bak 3 (2010), because the producers ran out of money halfway through filming. Stories circulated of Jaa disappearing from the set for months at a time. In 2010, he publicly renounced film to become a Buddhist monk, but quietly returned to public life shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, the business was beginning to change in his favor. The success of Jaa’s two breakout hits stoked international interest in Southeast Asian action movies. A growing direct-to-video market began to specialize in the kind of practical stuntwork that had been his stock-in-trade, and Gareth Evans’ Jaa-indebted sardine-can action flick The Raid became an influential hit.
The Protector 2, which reunites Jaa with Prachya, is meant to serve as phase one of the inevitable Jaa comeback, which includes two more already-completed starring vehicles, as well as supporting roles in Fast & Furious 7 and The Raid 3. Less a sequel than an attempt at brand reintroduction, the movie plays like a loose remake of the original, with Jaa returning as Kham, the rural martial artist whose only defining trait is his single-minded love of elephants.
Again, Kham’s elephant gets kidnapped by gangsters, leading him to break countless bad guys’ shinbones. Again, he crosses paths with comic-relief cop Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao), fights several specialist opponents, and gets mixed up in some international intrigue. A scene that pits Kham against several fighters in a fiery room serves as a callback to The Protector’s temple showdown. This time, however, the fire is all-digital. It looks terrible.
Jaa’s fame was founded on his ability to execute complex stunts on camera without the help of wires or digital effects. Nowhere is his appeal more evident than in The Protector’s justly celebrated Steadicam long take, the high point of both Jaa and Prachya’s careers. For nearly four minutes, the camera follows Kham up a spiraling staircase as he fights his way through floor after floor of lunging, blundering bad guys. Every move is executed precisely on-cue. The wonky wide-angle lens makes it seem as though space were shifting and pivoting around him. It’s an object lesson in how the relationship between a camera and its subject can turn choreographed action into kinetic art.
Aside from a brief sequence involving a Jaa-mounted GoPro, there’s little physical or visual showmanship to The Protector 2, which replaces practical stunts with crude green screen and digital compositing, and throws in a handful of corny “comin’ right at ya!” 3-D effects for good measure. An early set piece has Kham squaring off against a gang of moped punks on a clothesline-strung rooftop—as good an opportunity as any for Jaa to get his Jackie Chan on. But, instead, the sequence devolves into a series of effects shots, which range from unconvincing to laughable to sublimely cheesy, as in the case of the shot where a CGI car runs over a man’s head.
Cheese is just about the only thing The Protector 2 has going for it. There’s a subplot involving the fictional countries of East and West Katana, stand-ins which bring to mind Val Verde, the generic South American country from Commando, Predator, and Die Hard 2. A medical examiner is able to describe the exact combination of martial arts moves used to kill a person. RZA—who, based on his appearance in this film and the recent District B13 remake Brick Mansions, is keen to embrace the hottest action trends of 2005—spends most of the movie chewing on a solid-gold tooth pick and the rest of it chewing on scenery. At one point, a bomb gets rigged to an elephant. In brief spurts, the film is funny, but taken as a whole, it feels like a waste of talent. Cheesiness should not be the most memorable thing about a Tony Jaa movie.