In 2005 Tom Yum Goong seemed to cement Thaï action star Tony Jaa’s status as the new martial arts sensation, following his impressive calling card, 2003’s Ong Bak. Though Jaa was light on charisma, and the film itself was little more than a stunt demo reel, with a simplistic story and grainy, amateurish aesthetic, there was no denying the utter death-defying bravado of its fights and stunts, executed with a mix of lithe power and startling flexibility by its star. Tom Yum Goong didn’t shine more plotwise, but was a more polished film, worthy of the big screen : its director and choreographer, Prachah Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai, Jaa’s pygmalions, had scaled back the life-threatening stunts but made the fights more momentous by featuring diverse and impressive guest-fighters like Capoeira-dynamo Lateef Crowder, Wushu-wonder John Foo, towering musclehead Nathan Jones and Vietnam’s finest, Johnny Tri Nguyen. Technically and artistically the fights were also things of beauty, with a dizzying 4-minute tracking-shot fight, Jaa breaking the bones of dozens of men in black, or taking on henchmen twice his size. Then came Tony Jaa’s much publicized breakdown on the set of Ong Bak 2, which he had wanted to direct, the eventual underperformance of that film, the complete failure of its second part, Ong Bak 3, and the star’s retreat as a Buddhist monk. Five years later, Tom Yum Goong 2 marks his comeback to films, his reunion with Pinkaew, and his first pairing with the petite martial arts wonder that more or less replaced him during his exile, Jeeja Yanin. And it’s hard not to be sorely disappointed.
The plot is, duh, simple. Kham’s (Tony Jaa) elephant has been stolen, again, so within ten minutes he is back to breaking into buildings or houses, yelling “Chang gu yoo nai !?!” (“Where’s my elephant ?”), and breaking henchmen-bones. His elephant has actually been stolen by Mr. LC (RZA), a shady, err, man who aims to replace its tusks with bombs and offer it as an explosive diplomatic gift to dignitaries of the fictional state of Katana to facilitate a coup-d’etat. Mr. LC has a range of skilled fighters under his command, including the lethal n°2 (Marrese Crump) and the beautiful n°20 (Rhatha “Yayaying” Phongam) ; he has plans to frame Kham, who can only count on his friend Mark (Petchtai “Mum Jokmok” Wongkamlao) and a girl (Jeeja Yanin) whose uncle and twin sister were murdered by n°2.
As we said, within ten minutes a steady stream of fights has been initiated, and the film rarely pauses for more than five minutes before getting back to limb-breaking. The unfortunate bouts of lame comedy from the previous film are gone (comic relief Wongkamlao is enjoyably dialed-down and endearing). Indeed, this is not a boring film at all, and one of the few things it manages to achieve properly is maintain a healthy rythm that never lulls but never goes into overkill either. A side-effect is that, apart from an early set-piece and the grand finale, the fights often feel bitty, always stopping when they’re starting to get interesting : for instance Jaa and Yanin fight twice, but never for longer than a minute, and an action scene where Jaa disposes of security guards in an official building is over much too early. And the more protracted action scenes, while featuring some impressive passages, fail on almost every level. Visually, they’re not a pretty sight, marred by eye-gouging CGI (which we guess was for the sake of the film’s 3D release), a green-screen aesthetic that seems to indicate much of the film was shot on soundstages, with backgrounds digitally added later on, which makes for a distractingly ugly result. One fight set in a room on fire is an unbelievable hack-job, with slapdash CGI fire slathered on the walls.
The awe-inspiring practicality of Jaa’s previous films is gone, with the aforementioned CGI and green screen, but also often apparent wirework ; now, we know Jaa is now approaching his forties, and the breackneck, daring stunts of ten years ago are understandably getting out of his reach, but trickery in film fights is all in the execution, and there’s almost something amateurish in the glaring obviousness of some of the CGI and wirework. Actually, the film often looks like a patch-up job, with its trouble-fraught, unusually protacted production probably accounting for the numerous editing glitches, lapses in narrative logic (even inside the fights), and the fact Jaa’s haircut often changes in the course of a set-piece, becoming shorter then longer again, and so forth. In the early major set-piece where Jaa is hunted by countless bikers on the roofs of Bangkok, shots alternate between location shoot and green-screen insert, sadly detracting from some of the impressive stuntwork and choreography to be found there.
More damningly, the film doesn’t seem to know what its audience wants. Why include Jeeja Yanin, if her role basically amounts to being a punching bag for everyone she fights ? Her character has no real interaction with Jaa’s and is made to pop up randomly in various scenes, attacking Jaa or Crump and generally getting disposed of with a few blows. Why spend so much time on RZA talking or fighting, when the guy is not much of an actor and not much of a fighter either ? Why render Tony Jaa so passive in the last tier of the finale ? He’s basically just hanging to his elephant’s tusks while RZA and Crump pummel him. Still, it’s not all bad. As previously mentioned the film is never boring, and Jaa’s mano-a-mano’s with Marrese Crump are actually quite impressive, with the latter exhibiting some stunning speed and strength, making for a worthy opponent. Jaa himself is still a joy to behold in action, even if seemingly a bit slower and less flexible (a natural evolution) ; he however hasn’t gained much in the way of charisma. But this film is not up to his Pinkaew’s or Yanin’s potential and really, it’s a wonder a 3-year shoot might lead to such a sloppy result.
Long Story Short : Tom Yum Goong 2 is an entertaining but sorely disappointing comeback for Tony Jaa, mired in distractingly ugly CGI and underuse of its talent. **