Where Ong-Bak crackled, The Warrior King fizzles. The Thai title – Tom Yum Goong – is a shrimp soup speciality. Rich and rangey complement of ingredients, but a tad gloopy and overseasoned for some tastes. The dream-team of Pinkaew, Jaa and fight choreographer Panna Rittikrai is still in place. But The Warrior King is a punch-drunk pugilist, favouring lumbering, periodic swipes over Ong-Bak’s high-stamina scampers and scurries. As with Bruce Lee before him, Jaa’s talent is so radiant, Pinkaew and Rittikrai are clearly having too much fun conceiving ever more outrageous fight scenes for them to bother with the business of fitting a decent film around them.
The Warrior King is what happens when you try to do more of the same, only bigger, louder, pricier – missing the point that the original’s key pleasure was its cheapo charm. Gone is the gleeful pornography of those multi-angled slo-mo replays. No more of that exquisite, 20-odd minute foreplay, teasing and cranking up to the first screen-rippling, surgical knee-strike. Jaa’s feral, feline charisma and his wild and wireless approach to stunt work have been sidelined by soppy CGI, Westernised baddies, needless chopper’s-eye-view sweeps of Sydney and formulaic action-movie bluster (you gaped and gagged at Ong-Bak’s fridge-fight, but you’ll yawn at The Warrior King’s Leap Off Building And High-Kick Helicopter-Clinging Bad Man).
Christ, the fight scenes are good. So good, Pinkaew could have replaced the rest of the film with linking, silent movie-style title cards (‘KHAM ENTERS RESTAURANT, STILL ELEPHANTLESS’, ‘KHAM WANDERS INTO BURNING TEMPLE FOR SOME REASON – NOT IMPORTANT’), chopped the running-time to 30 mins, and we’d still recommend you go see it.
There’s a skin-slicing scrap with a whip-cracking ladyboy; an underpass shoeing of big boys with big sticks; a gymnastic dust-up with a sword-flailing psycho that sees Jaa use a gong for a shield and gong-beaters as an improv weapon...
Most wincingly, to demo his new, close-quarters style, there’s an ‘Oof!’, ‘Eesh!’ and ‘Jesus!’-inducing sequence where he systematically snaps, grapples and joint-pops his way through the arms, legs, necks, hips and assorted sinews of an army of disposable henchmen. Pinkaew pulls back to reveal his all-conquering hero, last man standing over a writhing carpet of artfully dislocated casualties.
So Jaa’s position as the new martial arts movie superstar is indisputable, even if The Warrior King is little more than limiting genre filler. The next challenge is to see if he can evolve and elbow his way off the straight-to-DVD bus bound for Jean-Claude Van Damme Land.