I’m a sucker for these old Thai action movies, even though they burn me again and again. I’m not talking about the new stuff like Ong-Bak or The Protector even The Bodyguard. I’m talking about the backyard action movies they made in the eighties and nineties. Produced strictly for the domestic market, these flicks were only meant to be seen by Thai people who didn’t mind lousy production values as long as they got to see movies in their own language for a change. They were never intended to be watched by American audiences who are accustomed to having luxuries like “lighting” and “sets” in their movies. Most of these flicks are real dogs, with way too many cornball comic-relief scenes and way too little action, but some of them are a lot of fun if you can get your threshold for basic filmmaking competence down to Ted V. Mikels levels.
Battle Warrior tells the story of this guy who gets kidnapped by this other guy and these other guys who want to rescue him. These old Thai movies don’t spend a lot of time cluing you in on who the characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s more like, “There’s this plot that needs to happen if we’re ever gonna get to the kicking, and since we’re the only ones here, let’s get to it.” In this case, it’s all about this anthropologist guy who finds the Golden Stone, which is an ancient tablet detailing the origins of all these Southeast Asian tribes. It’s supposedly worth a billion baht (the subtitles say “dollars,” but I’m not buying it) so he stashes it at the bottom of a river before he gets captured by this backwoods warlord and his posse. Then the dude’s daughter gets all these random guys together to venture into the jungle to save him. Are they soldiers? Mercenaries? Friends of the family? I don’t know. They’re just the dudes the story happens to happen to.
Movies like Battle Warrior point out the importance of costuming, in that they don't have any. Everybody is just wearing regular-ass clothes, so you don’t get any of the visual clues that a good (or even serviceable) costume will give you. A dude wearing an army uniform is probably a soldier, but a dude wearing a T-shirt and sneakers could be just about anything. It really affects a movie’s believability when its band of badasses are all dressed like unemployed tomato pickers. This gives a lot of older Thai movies the feel of a school project where your classmate is supposed to be Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird but he’s just wearing his older brother’s dress shirt tucked into his jeans. The best example of this phenomenon is Spirited Killer, in which a vengeful kung-fu demon comes back from the grave wearing a windbreaker and Reeboks.
Anyway, the scene where the team gets assembled lets you know that the incomprehensible tedium of these expository scenes will be worth it in the long run, because it explains the many perils with which our heroes’ journey into the warlord’s territory will be fraught. First, they’ll have to get past the Black Goblins, a savage tribe of scary blowdarting motherfuckers who wear black facepaint and speak fluent Ewok. Then they’ll have to defeat the warlord’s first line of defense: a zombie. (“A zombie?” says the guy in the ugly T-shirt. “Yes. A bloodsucking zombie,” replies the other guy in the ugly T-shirt.) No explanation is ever given as to how this warlord got his own zombie. Some dudes are just lucky, I guess.
Tony Jaa gets above-the-title credit on the DVD cover, but pay that no mind. Ong-Bak was, is, and always will be Jaa’s first starring role, so any movie from before 2003 that tries to tell you otherwise is lying to you. He does have a decent-sized role as the warlord’s right-hand man, and he also did some of the fight choreography with his mentor, Panna Rittikrai, the Harvey Weinstein of Thai action cinema. But aside from a few flips and spinkicks, he doesn’t get to do much. It’s not that his fights are bad, but they’re just not jaw-dropping like his later work.
The cinematography can also be a problem, particularly in the Black Goblin ambush. It seems that the crew didn’t bring any lights into the jungle with them, so scenes are shot with whatever sunlight manages to filter down through the dense canopy overhead. A lot of times you're just looking at a bunch of black blobs sort of oozing around each other. Then there’s the fact that I suspect the movie was shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and then stretched out to 1.85:1 for the DVD, which makes everybody look squashed. All this makes it a little hard to tell what’s going on sometimes, but that's okay because the music informs you that it's all very exciting. They use the old Kung Fu Theatre method of stealing music from other movies. In this case, they heavily sample the Die Hard score, specifically the cue that builds to the iconic moment when McClane jumps off the roof tied to the firehose. It's really tense, suspenseful music, but they'll use it for a boring scene of some dudes tromping through the jungle, which is really surreal. It's really distracting when you're trying to pay attention but all you're thinking is "Blow the roof!" "But Karl's up there!"
But then the zombie shows up (he’s another dude in sneakers and sweatpants, but he has some gooey shit smeared on his face so I guess his story checks out) and everything is awesome. He starts gutting people with his bare hands and getting shot a million times and hacked in the neck with a machete, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. Then they discover his only weakness: grenades. Before they splatter him all over the jungle, I think he manages to kill a bunch of the good guys, but it’s hard to say since the only ones I could tell apart were the leader (they gave him a bandanna to make him look more official) and the big white guy named Smith who came along for reasons unknown. On the DVD, they show him holding this gigantic quadruple-barreled machine gun. It looks sort of like a giant black licorice whip. I love oversized novelty weapons, so I was really looking forward to it, but I don’t think it ever shows up in the movie. Buyer beware.
Then the climax is full of kung fu and shootouts and a surprising amount of explosions. It’s nothing to get worked up over, but there’s a certain amount of tension involved because you don’t trust that these guys really know what they’re doing. They got explosives going off just a few feet from all these dudes in sweatpants, and it looks seriously unsafe. Somebody could get hurt real easy.
I guess that’s kind of the appeal of these movies. They look like something you and your buddies could do, only they’ve got a bunch of shit blowing up and people flipping through the air 16 times and landing on their heads. You really shouldn’t try this shit at home, but try telling Thailand that.