With its dramatically diverse landscapes and intriguing culture, Thailand has emerged as a dynamic new source for entertaining cinema. A recent local screening of Ong-bak (Thai Warrior) inspired me to purchase a double DVD set of that movie along with Kerd ma lui (Born to Fight) since both were produced by the same team of Panna and Prachya Pinkaew. Ong-bak was a charming tale of an aspiring Buddhist monk, who brandished a devastating original brand of marital arts by somersaulting through the air with deadly accurate swift kicks and flashing elbows. But only did so when pushed to defend his village's traditional faith and values.
What a disappointment was the 2004 follow up! Although the martial arts were once again showcased and a few double takes on certain action sequences (where the editor splices in "instant replays" from different camera angles on action shots), Born to Fight was little more than Thai flavored Michael Bay pyrotechnics on steroids in perpetual action sequences that appear ripped off from video games. I'm not even sure why they bothered to credit any screenwriters. A simple storyboard and a director/cinematographer who's played scores of Doom or Quake would have sufficed—that and a cast that has nunchuck skills, karate skills, soccer skills, and computer hacking skills.
Like beginning a video game without reading the directions or backstory, the film drops the viewer into non-stop action without much explanation. The first few seconds are appropriately quiet—two distant figures silhouetted against a Thai sunrise with one borrowing a Buddhist talisman for good fortune. Highly necessary when the people at the warehouse soon flash handguns (only to be summarily dispatched with automated rifles) and the chase is on—complete with insane stunt work with trucks that borrows heavily from Indiana Jones but ups the ante with kick boxing on top of the moving vehicles.
O yeah, there are some characters, like Daew (Choupong Changprung), an undercover cop who loses his partner in the opening scenes, but he doesn't carry the charismatic chops of Ong-bak's Tony Jaa, so his character only expresses itself in his frenzied gymnastic kicks, a call to Thai patriotism, and a gritty motorcycle ride back into the implosion area to save a villager. This isn't a film about character development; there is none—nothing more than pure melodrama to showcase its stunts and martial arts work.
On the bad side is General Yang, who appears to be the brains behind the largest drug ring going in Thailand, complete with a fully armed and military operation that is techno-savvy enough to have its own nuclear missile program that can be launched from their trusty laptops. They prop the General up as a cardboard figurehead only; he doesn't have much to do other than give the first orders and get captured, then delivered as ransom, before getting captured again. Most of the actual bad ass work goes to the scarfaced military leader, whose troops interrupt a peaceful gathering of Thai Olympic hopefuls in a remote village with a sudden burst of machine gun fire. Yet no matter how many villagers or soldiers are killed, they keep re-appearing (as long as they aren't one of the three or four main characters that get significant face time). That lets the filmmakers slosh a lot more John Woo blood all over the screen.
Martial arts purists won't give this high marks because the encounters are all brief and don't feature any of the main characters. The biggest battle begins when Daew summons the doomed villagers to arise and fight the army after learning that they are going to blow up Bangkok and kill everyone no matter what the government does, so that gives the film variety in its combat—including a one-legged boy who whirls on his crutch to pummel soldier heads with his right foot, and a soccer star kicks various balls and fruits with devastating effect. Even the 9 year old girls get in their kicks as well, so the soldiers have no safe zones when everyone just might kick their ass.
If you're not in the mood to do any thinking, but simply want a visceral experience, Born to Fight just may be your ticket. Many of the stunts are spectacular, and these Thai filmmakers don't use CGI to paint extra touches, so you are seeing the real deal on screen. I'm still amazed that some of the stunt men survived some of the scenes—a cyclist that ventures in between parallel trucks before they collide, for instance. But I was hoping for much more that was along the lines of Ong-Bak with its charismatic lead actor, a great deal of humor, and a meaningful spirituality that fueled the entire conflict. All we get in Born to Fight are dispensable characters engaged in 90 minutes of video game action.