The Spoony One | Feb 17 2009 | 

There’s been a lot of interest in Thai action flicks ever since Tony Jaa kickboxed his way into American theaters with the brutal and impactful Ong-Bak, a film about a country bumpkin tasked with recovering the village’s stolen holy Buddha statue’s head, which was stolen by gangsters because…uh…um…well they stole it, and the reluctant hero cripples untold hundreds of low-rent goons using the village’s bone-crushing Muay Thai techniques. It was pretty much on the same dramatic level as playing The Adventures of Bayou Billy, with a two-ton bronze Buddha head standing in for a girlfriend– but the fight choreography was so hard-hitting and just so goddamn painful to watch that it was hard not to “OOH” and “AAH” in sympathy for the hapless dopes lined up to fight Tony in each level– I mean, scene.

I think people were a little too eager to pass the action-star torch to Tony Jaa. In fact, Jackie Chan might as well have been carrying a golden flaming brand marked “You Sir, Are The Man” when he appeared in his brief cameo in the much-anticipated follow-up, The Protector, a film about a country bumpkin tasked with recovering the village’s stolen holy elephant, which was stolen by gangsters because…uh…um…oh, wait, I remember this one! The gangsters stole the elephant so that they could slaughter it, cover its bones in gold, and erect them behind their leader’s throne, both because legend holds that elephants confer immortality, and because it looked really cool.

It was a skin-peelingly stupid movie– in fact, I believe I went on record saying that the editing, direction and scriptwriting were lazier than even Plan 9 From Outer Space, which at least managed to tell a semi-coherent narrative. Characters would teleport in and out of scenes, appearing out of sheer plot convenience to find other characters even though they should have no possible knowledge where in all of Thailand they might be. The plot, which at face value is virtually identical to the previous movie, is somehow horribly convoluted to involve subplots about crooked cops and an incriminating video tape so that even the simple premise of “find bad guy, get elephant back” is rendered totally mystifying. And I’m pretty sure Tony Jaa’s only lines in two hours are shrieking “WHERE’S MY ELEPHANT?!!??!”

So while everyone else on the Internet was abuzz with excitement over Chocolate, made by the same director as The Protector and Ong-Bak, I took a rather grouchy wait-and-see stance. The story is as paper-thin as anything else the guy’s made, although I will grant you that it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen before. It’s about a girl named Zen, the autistic daughter of a Yakuza enforcer who becomes an idiot savant of martial arts by obsessively watching kung-fu movies. When her mother– also a former mob boss– becomes terribly ill, Zen’s brother Mike works desperately to pay for her medication. In desperation, he takes Zen to collect money from their mother’s former mob associates. Even he’s not fully aware of Zen’s prowess until their attempts to beg for money are met with scorn and violence, which awakens a kung-fu buzzsaw inside of Zen. Combined with her preternatural autistic ability to focus and her ungodly retard strength, she tears apart the entire Yakuza power structure.

Which you’ve gotta admit, sounds pretty freaking hardcore. Although I made up the part about ungodly retard strength. I’m not sure whether or not you should be offended by the concept. The movie isn’t exactly laughing at autism, but it’s certainly not taking the condition seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this movie, and it’s clearly been written and made by people with a real love and respect for the martial arts genre. Being a huge fan of the genre myself, you could analyze every single move, location, and plot element to find a shout-out to another movie. There’s a fight inside an ice-cutting factory, which causes Zen to re-create Bruce Lee’s moves and mannerisms from The Big Boss, as well as references to Kill Bill, The Matrix, you name it. My favorite was a quiet moment where Zen flips pieces of chocolate into her mouth like Jackie Chan in Operation Condor.

Anyway, the film is largely repetitive through the first hour. Zen approaches a criminal figure in his ice/pork/chocolate factory, asks for money, gets rebuked, asks again, and the guy finally gets annoyed enough that he orders his army of fanatically-loyal minimum-wage workers to attack, who then promptly get the shit kicked out of them. Then she gets the money and finds another factory. The real highlight of the film comes near the end when, unable to stop Zen’s fists of fury, the Yakuza do the only sensible thing:

They get their own retarded dude.

Well what else would you do?

It’s a classic showdown where Zen’s eiditic memory of mindless goon tactics fail her against the “Epileptic Boxer” and his twitchy, flailing fighting technique I’ve dubbed Spaz Fu. He’s not really epileptic as the credits have named him. His constant thrashing and grunting is more symptomatic of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome. Even so, it’s a truly surreal moment, and a first for action cinema watching a breakdancing, spastic Yakuza legbreaker who’s managed to not only overcome Tourette’s, but has turned it into a deadly martial arts weapon.

So yeah, I had a lot of fun with it, and I’m pretty sure you would too.

Here’s my problem, and believe me, I feel bad bringing this up knowing how many people busted their asses (literally) to make this movie.

It’s not very well made.

I’m sorry, it’s not. I liked the characters, I liked the premise, and I admire the choreography and athleticism of the action scenes. Really, the physicality is breathtaking. But I wasn’t really watching a fight; I was watching a dance. It looks choreographed. Every move, every stunt, every hit, it’s like they’re all moving at three-quarters speed. The punches and kicks are too slow, they don’t look like they’re connecting, and they don’t look like they’re delivered with any kind of force. It looks like they’re play-fighting instead of actually fighting, and that’s something Jackie Chan would never have stood for.

Just go and watch one of Jackie’s movies. The guy looks like he’s fighting for his life in every single fight. He moves with speed, his punches have SNAP to them, and when he gets hit, it looks like it fucking hurts. Once you realize how much he has to keep in his head, the precision of his attacks, the timing of his moves, and he still manages to act, it speaks a lot for his physical and dramatic talents. Jackie would hate this movie because the choreography is slow, sloppy, and violates some of his cardinal rules. It looks staged. The worst thing any stuntman can do in a movie like this is wait to get hit, literally holding up and staring slack-jawed for a half-second while the hero wheels about and kicks him in the face. It looks bad, and that’s basically every hit in this movie.

I guess that means I’m still not ready to pass the torch to anyone. Chocolate was good, but all it could do was pantomime great movies.

Too bad.