you're a fan of martial arts cinema then you will already
be aware that the genre is undergoing geographical relocation,
signalled by star Tony Jaa, director Prachya Pinkaew and
the terrific Ong-Bak.
But what am I saying, you don't just know that, you've already
bought the DVD and perhaps even busted your elbow trying
to imitate Jaa's extraordinary fighting skills. You may
even have checked out The
Bodyguard looking for confirmation that this
was no generic one-off and been left disappointed by the
wire work and lightweight silliness that Ong-Bak
was so successfully shaking off. Most of all, though, you've
been waiting for a film to follow up on Ong-Bak's
extraordinary fight choreography, jaw-dropping stunt work
and sheer physical brutality. With that in mind and with
Jaa and Pinaew's own follow-up film Tom yum goong
not yet released in the UK, the arrival of Born
to Fight seems rather well timed.
martial arts cinema for simplistic plotting and characterisations
is a little like complaining about weak dialogue in a porn
film, but Born to Fight is on even wobblier
ground than usual here, with the story functioning only
to get the characters into conflict and taking
the usual generic binary oppositions to almost ludicrous
extremes. The good guys are a mixture of poor, simple villagers
and good-hearted athletes who have come to hand out dolls
and fluffy animal toys to the local children, the bad guys
a bunch of murderous drug lords who kill anything they see
and plan to wipe out Bangkok with a thermo-nuclear missile
just for the hell of it. When they invade the village with
the intention of taking its inhabitants hostage in order to secure
the release of their boss fellah (seen captured in the opening
sequence), they mercilessly slaughter half the inhabitants
before rounding up the remaining unfortunates, including
the visiting athletes, a few of whom they kill on air so
that the watching government officials know they mean business.
They are led by a bad tempered, scar-faced commander who
makes most Bond villains look rather civilised by comparison.
to the mix is a streak of bleary-eyed patriotism so sentimentalist
that I, for one, was glad I hadn't just eaten a big meal.
If you want to put it in context, try to imagine a group
of American or British sports stars who are prompted to
fight against their captors after standing and singing The
Star Spangled Banner or God Save the Queen as tears of national
pride pour down their faces. That's right, you'd puke. It
never lets up, either, with slow motion shots of the national
flag being carried through the battle and a final fight
kicked in to action when a seemingly defeated warrior takes
patriotic inspiration from a fallen coin of the realm.
untranslatable is the use of top national athletes in key
roles – the very idea of the likes of David Beckham, Ronnie
O'Sullivan and Tim Henman doing battle with a terrorist
army in the name of Queen and country should send shudders
down most sensitive spines. It only works at all here for
a western audience because of our relative unfamiliarity
with the athletes in question, rendering them no different
from any other young action stars.
the story blows, the characters are simplistic and the nationalism
runs rampant, but what about the action? Ah, now that's
where Born to Fight begins to justify its
ticket price. Opening on a police operation that goes violently
wrong, the film lurches into an explosive truck chase peppered
with astonishing leaps and falls (one particularly alarming
tumble sees a member of the stunt crew miss violent death by
inches), on the way throwing in nods to John Woo and climaxing
in a no doubt deliberate reference to the opening of Jackie
Chan's Police Story. Even as we move into
sentimental claptrap territory, we all know this is just
a preamble to more of the same.
first shift arrives in shockingly violent style, announced
by a single unexpected gunshot and an explosive neck wound,
and quickly developing into an almost Mai Lai-style massacre
in which the invaders are sketched as both viciously amoral
and technologically advanced, the flipside of the simple
villagers they are laying waste to. As the survivors get
all dewy-eyed with national pride, the invading terrorists
are set up for the kicking of their lives, and once this
starts it just never lets up, driven along by a fast-paced
but typically off-the-peg electronic score and a determination
to relentlessly assault the viewer with action until the
closing scenes. The novelty factor here is supplied by the
athlete stars, who fight using their sporting specialities,
whether it be football, parallel bars, balance beam, pole
vaulting or even muay thai boxing. It actually works pretty
well, providing fights that blend acrobatic elegance with
a full contact brutality that looks like becoming a Thai
martial arts movie signature. It even provides a Shaolin
Soccer-style moment of (perhaps unintentional) comedy
when a football is used to remove a guard from a watch tower
(a very rare use of CGI), all the more effective for being
done completely in wide shot.
no mistake, this is a violent film. As the battle rages,
villagers continue to be slaughtered in such impossible
numbers that I began wondering where the cloning machine
was hidden (I swear there are far more killed than there
were in the village in the first place and more survivors
at the end than there were hostages at the midway stage).
Individual fights and stunts are wince-inducing in their
abuse of the human body, and just everyone is prepared to
take on and destroy a bad guy for the motherland, including
an old man, a very young girl, and a one-legged man who pivots
spectacularly on his crutch to deliver a head-spinning kick.
There are a fair number of references to other Eastern action
films, especially the work of Jackie Chan and John Woo,
with an attempt to top a famous sequence in the latter's
Hard Boiled with a long, superbly choreographed
hand-held shot in which the protagonist makes his way through
the village fighting, shooting and blowing up enemies, as
well as being assaulted and blown up by them in turn.
all pretty exhausting stuff, and while it does feel ragged and over-sentimental
and largely unsubtle, the frenetic pace and sometimes
astonishing physicality of the action, not to mention the
darkly toned nature of much of the more violent aspects,
do provide some serious compensation. But most of all it
confirms that Ong-Bak was no generic pan
flash, and that Thai martial arts cinema may well be looking
to steal Hong Kong's long-worn crown.
and anamorphic, it's actually a little tricky to judge the
transfer here too accurately because of what appears to
be some deliberate post-production tinkering that has beefed
up the contrast and added some rather garish tints to some
scenes, with some flesh tones looking particularly bilious.
This increasingly popular strand of cinematic post-modernism
is a fine line to walk, intriguing when it works, an eyesore
when it doesn't (check out the revoltingly tinted trailer
for Tony Scott's Domino). It doesn't quite
come off here, sometimes looking less like a visual style
than a slight transfer cock-up, the very evident grain (which
itself could be post-produced) and sometimes unnatural colour
scheme adding nothing to the film's feel or effectiveness.
In all other respects the transfer seems decent enough,
with black levels and detail very respectable.
are three soundtrack options available: Dolby 2.0 stereo,
5.1 Surround and DTS. The stereo track is decent enough,
but the 5.1 and (especially) DTS do tend to kick more sonic
arse, and given that it's all noise and music in the second
half then this works well for the film. Explosions especially
make the sofa wobble.
the Set of Born to Fight (10:55) is a collection
of behind-the-scenes footage, largely concentrating on the filming
of the stunts and their occasionally painful aftermath.
This has removable English subtitles. There's little structure,
but it is interesting to watch for obvious reasons.
Cast of Born to Fight
(5:43) is actually an extended trailer for the film, a collection
of action and behind-the-scenes clips overlaid by promotional
graphics and the names of the stars. This is a wee bit vacuous.
(21.19) is what its says, being short interviews with stars
Dan Chupong, Kessarin Ektawatkul, Amorthep Waesang, Peeyapong
Piew-orn, Nantawat Wongwaninchsilp, Sasia Jindamanee, Rattanaporn
Khemtong, Suebsak Pansueb, plus writer, director and action choreographer
Panna Rittikrai, and producer Prachya Pinkaew. Most of this
is a bit lightweight, save for the interview with Pinkaew (who
directed Ong-Bak) when he talks about the process of creating that lorry shot
that nearly removed a stunt man from the film and the planet
are trailers for Born
to Fight (2:43), Ong-Bak (2:18)
and The Bodyguard (1:58). The Born
to Fight is actually rather tasty, but we know
which one we like best.
is also DVD-ROM content, with A Look at the Thai Film
Industry by Lee Mason and detailed cast and crew profiles
in PDF format, and screensavers
for PC and Mac, though I couldn't get the Mac ones to work.
its over-simplified characters and story and its flag-hugging
patriotism, this is definitely one for the hardened action
fans, who don't really care how we get to the fights
and stunts as long as they deliver, and they certainly do here. As a movie
it falls short, but as an ad for the skills of Thai action
cinema, it does the job.