Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Born To Fight

Ever since Ong Bak came out and kicked all of our asses like our backpacks had mechanical boots attached to them, Thai action movies have been drifting to our shores on DVD. Most of them come with the Ong Bak logo prominently displayed on the cover, with the legend "From the hairstylist of Ong Bak" not-so-prominently displayed underneath. A lot of them even show Tony Jaa front and center, even if he's only in the movie for five minutes as "T-Shirted Goon No. 2." This used to piss me off, but now I forgive the DVD-makers their marketing chutzpah. With or without Jaa, these movies are usually worth the money.

True, you gotta know what you're getting into with a lot of the older ones, which weren't ever intended to be seen by anyone except Thai peasants with understandably low standards. Ong Bak represented a revolution in Thai production values, so even though it looked kind of ghetto by American standards, it was still Pirates of the Goddamn Caribbean compared to most Thai flicks. A good example is Spirited Killer ("These killings are quite spirited, wouldn't you say? They possess a certain joi de vivre that I find delightful."), which does feature Jaa in a single fight scene (the best in the movie). The characters keep talking about how the movie they're in is about some kind of invincible spirit of vengeance, but as far as I can tell from watching it, it's just about a bunch of dudes in sweatpants running around on dirt roads, kicking each other. That's what happens when you can't afford sets or costumes. But it's got some good kicking, so you forgive it. Who watches action movies for costumes, anyway?

But mostly what Thai action movies are known for are stunts, and of all those I've seen, Born To Fight delivers the most spectacular ones. In fact, it's got some of the best stunts ever attempted in a motion picture, period. I don't normally make bold statements like that, but Born To Motherfuckin' Fight kind of demands it.

When I say stunts, I don't mean fight choreography, car crashes or explosions (although there are plenty of those). I'm talking about crazy motherfuckers with no regard for life and limb who throw themselves off, into, and through all kinds of shit for your amusement. Thai people are nuts. Their main innovation over Hollywood or Hong Kong is the lack of wires or pads. You see a stuntman launch himself off of something, bounce off of something else, spin five times, and then land in the dirt, all in one shot. I don't care how much training you have, that shit is gonna fucking hurt. It looks like somebody gets seriously injured in every single shot. You'll see things in Born To Fight that you can't believe a motherfucker actually survived.

Here's the basic breakdown of the movie:

The Bondian Pre-Credits Action Sequence:
This shit is so good, it would have been the big climax of any other movie. We got two 18-wheelers driving side by side, with dudes throwing other dudes off the top of them. There's one shot where a guy gets kicked off of one, bounces off the side of the other, and lands in the dirt between them, his head rolling within a fucking inch of the rear tires. Somebody almost died for art that day, and I, for one, appreciate that shit more than words can express. Majestyk's Movies salutes the fuck out of you, Random Thai Guy Who Almost Got Run Over In That Shot. But as impressive as that stunt was, the sequence is full of similar shit. Another dude gets launched off the truck and lands on top of a minivan. But he doesn't land cleanly. That would have been too easy. No, this dude has to just glance off the rear corner so you can feel the fucking metal crease your spine. It looks so awkward and unplanned that you gotta wonder if he could ever walk again afterward. And then, after all this, we got one 18-wheeler careening off a cliff, Duel-style, and another crashing through a shantytown, Bad Boys II-style, followed by a truly massive series of explosions. This shit is beautiful, man. I'm getting misty-eyed just thinking about it.

The Introductory Gayness: Clearly, the movie couldn't have continued at this pace or somebody really would have died, and in any case, human eyes are not meant to withstand such a nonstop barrage of total and complete awesomeness for 90 straight minutes. Maybe in the future when people have bionically augmented optics, this could be accomplished, but for now, even Thai action movies have to slow down and introduce some stupid characters in between the ass-kickings. It turns out the movie is about all these socially conscious student-athletes who are logging their community service hours by bringing food and supplies and shit to this impoverished village out in the middle of nowhere. So you're gonna have to endure about 20 minutes of sappy-sweet sentimentality before the murderation begins anew. Sorry, bud. Them's the breaks.

The Villainy-Establishing Massacre: But when that gayness stops, man, look out. See, in the first scene, this big drug lord was captured by a cop who just happens to be at the village with his gymnast sister when the drug lord's beret-wearing paramilitary goons attack. What I love about Thai movies is that they aren't afraid to make the villains as evil as fuck. There's none of that "villains are people, too" moral relativism bullshit you get a lot these days. These dudes are fucking monsters, and they know it. They're like Chuck Norris villains. They slaughter women, children, old people, monks, cripples, whatever. They don't give a fuck. This shit is fucking brutal. I actually cringed in this one shot where a dude's arm gets machine-gunned and it splatters into unrecognizable shape without ever actually falling off. It's rough stuff, especially when you see a father get executed right in front of his little girl, but it's absolutely crucial to set up the incredible catharsis you feel later in the movie when the good guys fight back.

The Turning Point: Eventually, you learn that the bad guys are holding the village hostage to secure the release of their boss. Not only that, they have a nuclear goddamn missile pointed at Bangkok. Shit just got real, so after the hostages hear the Thai national anthem on the radio, they rise up and starting singing along, and the movie gets all Braveheart on you with the swelling music and St. Crispin's Day pre-battle speeches. This shit is actually quite moving if you're the type of person who gets choked up by the prospect of underdogs righteously kicking ass. These hostages are fighting armed mercenaries with no weapons and little to no chance of success, but they have one thing going for them: They're Thai. Thai movies make it seem like being Thai is the greatest thing on earth. They love their country and they love each other, with neither irony nor jingoism tainting that love, the way it does here in America. They just have a well-developed sense of national self-esteem, and it makes them in-fucking-vincible. Man, I wish I was Thai.

The Payback: While this movie does have a main star (Dan Chupong, the dude who was also in Dynamite Warrior, that movie where Thai cowboys fight each other with kung-fu and/or rockets), it's really an ensemble piece, and the extended climax reflects that. Basically, what we got here is about a half-hour of almost completely wordless action vignettes as each former hostage uses whatever gifts Buddha blessed them with to take out the villains. Apparently, the cast is full of real soccer players, gymnasts, rugby players, and muay thai fighters (including the little girl who saw her daddy get executed), so these are some pretty slick motherfuckers. They got moves for days. I'm not gonna lie, shit gets pretty goofy when the soccer player starts knocking out snipers with a soccer ball from a hundred yards, but it's pretty easy to get swept up in the moment and give in to the ridiculousness. Also, it gets kind of like Gymkata, in that there are always random pieces of makeshift gymnastics equipment around for the cop's sister to swing around on and kick people. You can't front on her skills, though. But as talented as the heroes are, the real stars are the stuntmen playing the villains, because they're the ones who have to take most of the punishment. You know how in most movies when people get kicked in the face, they just kick real close to the face but place the camera in such a way that no one can tell that there was no actual contact? They don't do that in Thailand. They just kick motherfuckers in the face. Or in the head. Or they launch them over the top of a moving pick-up truck through a burning wall and into a pile of dirt. There are so many awesome bits of action in this sequence (which ends with another massive series of explosions), I can't even begin to describe them all.

And why should I? It's not about what happens, it's about watching how it happens. That's what separates the true action fans from the casual ones. To the true action fan, action is like the ballet. Someone with less knowledge of the art form may just see a bunch of interchangeable jumping and kicking, but an expert can discern the truly incredible from the merely mediocre. Born To Fight is an action movie for connoisseurs who know that every roundhouse kick is not created equal. It's not about story or acting or cinematography, although these things certainly help. It's about the art of war, the grammar of violence, the poetry of motion, and Born To Fight was made by warrior-poets of the highest order. If you don't like it, you might just be a pussy.

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