I do not know that I can meaningfully defend The Protector 2, which is why it is for the better that no one involved particularly seems to respect my opinion at all. Less a feature film than the Tony Jaa variety hour, The Protector 2 is disarmingly free of stakes, coherency, and even tension. It is, as drama, almost disturbingly inept, entirely daffy in the way it tortures a narrative out of scenes of mayhem and malarkey. There’s a focus on wholly inadequate compositing shots that is endearing in its disregard for common courtesy and the social propriety of visual logic. At times, the shenanigans on display approximates an anti-narrative hostility that is nearly inspired in its casually self-effacing “plot”. The RZA took Tony Jaa’s elephant, and you don’t take Tony Jaa’s elephant.
By all accounts, the latter two Ong-Bak features were harrowing experiences for Jaa, forcing him to retreat from the limelight into monasticism, perhaps in repentance of all the gore he’d spilled and bones he’d broken in his features. It is difficult to say whether Jaa’s mental state was the impetus for the mirthless bloodletting in that pair of films or whether the reverse was the case. But whatever the causal relationship, those films bore the frayed mind of a man who clearly needed a break. The mise-en-scene was dirtied up as if rubbed in raw sewage, the editing unstitched before us, and the camerawork was motor-mouthed and terrified, more frenzied than spry or nimble. Ong Bak 2 and 3 (filmically kindred spirits, or, in fact, one film split in two parts) were films on the war path.
Although essentially incompetent in many respects, The Protector 2 is more slippery than fierce, rekindling the playful and dexterous swagger of the original Ong Bak far more blissfully than either of its sequels-in-name-only could. Those films ossified in the swamp of their own portentousness but, perhaps in an awkward submission to, or reckoning with, the understanding that Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais are the new bad boys in town, The Protector 2 adopts a sly nice-guy trickster routine. It’s supremely wacky, Bugs-Bunny-inspired action recasts Jaa as the eternal mischief maker and seemingly all of Thailand as the butt of his jokes. Eschewing a respect for history that was treated with a cloyingly sacrosanct fetish in the Ong Bak sequels, the film suggests a freewheeling playground rather than a holy temple.
It also returns a sense of elasticity to martial arts, massaging Jaa’s inherent athleticism as comic, limber dance rather than brutal murder. Jaa is Gene Kelly, and everyone else in the film, especially their bones, is a stage for him to tap-dance all over. The narrative, as in many classical Hollywood musicals, is all cartilage, ready and willing to bend for the show-piece moments. Even Jaa’s borderline-unhealthy elephant obsession, while played for mystical, crudely earnest melodrama in the Ong Bak films, is now one more absurdist gesture, almost kitschy in its non-discretionary aplomb. By the time the RZA straight-up straps a bomb onto the elephant, you half expect to see a pink elephant saunter by yourself. Or Michigan J. Frog, and it wouldn’t be the loopiest thing here.
At its most prancing and frolicsome, the characters gyrate with electricity and jostle around a burning room, cavorting in spirals rather than simply smacking each other over the head. The only thing really holding The Protector 2 back from the limelight is that it sobers up and acquiesces to timidity before closing time. The first major set-piece, a blasphemous imbroglio between the slippery Jaa and a veritable wrecking crew or dance company worth of motorcycling delinquents, is the best. It’s a cheerful, blithe high-point in a film that simmers down when it should be unfurling its lunatic-streak. The more he bears the feisty stamp of Tex Avery, the better Jaa undoubtedly is, but bizarrely erotic climactic shots aside, Jaa just isn’t as boisterous as Stephen Chow, the reining master of Jackie Chan-inspired kung fu lunacy. Still, it’s nice to see Jaa in a happier place, at least if the spirited nature of this antic martial arts sideshow is any indication into the soul of the man at its center.