VENGEANCE OF AN ASSASSIN (2014) review

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Vengeance of an Assassin bears the sad distinction of being Panna Rittikrai’s final film as a director (his final film as a martial arts choreographer will be Tony Jaa’s upcoming A Man Will Rise, co-starring Dolph Lundgren), after his untimely passing in July 2014, which left a gaping hole in the world of martial arts films. It follows two brothers, Thee (Dan Chupong) and Than (Nantawut Boonrupsup), whose parents were murdered when they were young, and who’ve been brought up by their uncle. Thee has revenge on his mind and leaves his home to become an assassin, much to the grief of his uncle(Ping Lumprapleng), whose last promise to the parents was that he would raise their sons to become normal people. But after Thee refuses spares the life of a woman (Nisachon Tuamsongnern) he had been contracted to kill and goes on the run with her, he is hunted down by a shady businessman’s team of assassins (including Kazu Patrick Tang and Nui Kessarin) and has to enlist the help of his brother, his uncle and the woman’s Chinese doctor (Malaysian actor Ooi Teik Huat) to fight back and get revenge on the businessman, who may also the one who killed his parents.

It is unclear whether Vengeance of an Assassin had finished shooting when Panna Rittikrai passed away, and if so, whether pick-up shots were conducted by a new director. Either way, the film has a glaringly unfinished and fragmentary feel to it when it comes to the plot. It’s like entire scenes are missing, scenes that would at least give continuity and some degree of explanation to the proceedings. As it is, the film suffers from an amateurish lack of clarity, coherence and basic narrative build-up; what explanatory elements there are in between the action scenes and some cringe-worthy melodrama, come in the form of incredibly clumsy transition scenes. For example, this is how we are supposed to realize Thee became an assassin : we see him leaving his home, after which there’s a short, poorly-framed shot of people being gunned down by an unseen killer in a non-descript alley, followed by a shot of Thee sitting in a sofa with a determined look on his face. Even the best Thai martial arts films have never had solid plots, but Vengeance of an Assassin manages to boggle the mind with its narrative vagueness, its empty and anonymous characters, and its unbelievably odd and perfunctory plot turns.

Lazy flashbacks (of the kind that take place 20 years ago but where they just give the characters a wig and film them in the exact same place, with no set changes whatsoever) pad out the runtime, as do protracted scenes of the main characters sobbing about issues on which the film cannot seem to fill its audience in properly. It doesn’t help that Dan Chupong and Nantawut Boonrupsup, while superbly agile, have all the screen presence of a plastic spoon. The only cast members who register are Ping Lumprapleng, who would probably have been poignant if the film had been competently written, Nui Kessarin (revealed in Panna Rittikrai’s Born to Fight in 2004) who at least looks striking and makes her presence known by overacting, and Ooi Teak Huat whose wry and calm power could do wonders in better films.

But of course, the action is what one seeks in a film like Vengeance of an Assassin. The film opens with a stunningly gratuitous action scene : a violent football match where heads are kicked much more often than the ball itself. It’s an impressive but overly showy piece, whose excessive use of slow-motion and total lack of narrative or emotional stakes, coupled with the fact that it’s actually ONLY A DREAM, make it ultimately more head-scratching than pulse-pounding. Elsewhere, there’s a climactic action scene aboard and on top of a train that has good fighting (it demonstrates that a chicken bone can be a fearful weapon), but is marred by atrocious green-screen work, a problem that already plagued 2013’s disappointing Tom Yum Goong 2. It is puzzling to see Thai action cinema get bogged down in amateurish CGI, when its most celebrated films, like Ong Bak, Tom Yum Goong or Born To Fight, were bracingly practical displays of stuntwork and choreography.

Still, the stuntmen in Panna Rittikrai’s team acquit themselves flawlessly and fearlessly once again ; these men are probably made of steel and rubber in equal measure. There’s a few serviceable skirmishes in warehouses and an abandoned factory, where creative and brutal use is made of hooks and pulleys, and a short but delightful fight where the Chinese doctor knocks out a half-dozen henchmen with great ease, but the actual showstopper is a tracking-shot gunfight where Dan Chupong wipes out an entire building’s worth of bad guys with two machine-guns, as the camera follows without blinking. It’s not on a par with the mind-blowing tracking shot fight scene in Tom Yum Goong but still, it’s a bittersweet reminder of how thrilling a Panna Rittikrai action scene could be. But the truth is, Vengeance of an Assassin has more in common with the grainy cheapies the Thai action maestro cut his teeth on in the eighties and nineties, than with the increasingly ambitious action films with which he started rejuvenating his country’s action film industry in the naughties.

Long Story Short : A cheap action film that entertains with its bone-crunching action but baffles with its amateurish plotting and production values. *1/2

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