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Spiced up for take-away : On August 4, 2005

There's plenty of no-wire, high-risk action in the exhilarating 'Tom Yum Goong', though the story lacks conviction

It shares its name with Thailand's most famous dish, and new action flick "Tom Yum Goong" is as spicy as promised, with two full hours of thrills and spills.

Home-grown hero Phanom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum undertakes some risky, almost superhuman tasks as Kham, a young Thai upcountry man in Sydney, Australia, on the trail of elephants kidnapped by a gang led by the transvestite Madame Rose (Jing Xing) and her Vietnamese sidekick Johnny (Johnny Nguyen).

But the going gets tough despite the help of Sergeant Mark (Petchthai "Mum Jokmok" Wongkamlao), a Thai police sergeant based in Australia, and Pla (Bongkote Kongmalai), a Thai girl forced into slavery.

While last year's blockbuster "Ong Bak" presented Jaa as a national athlete, "TYG" has him as an Olympic gold medallist, displaying punches and kicks that push the ancient martial art of muay thai (kick-boxing) into a completely new orbit.

The young actor has worked closely with his mentor, veteran actor Panna Ritthikrai, and "Ong Bak" director Prachya Pinkaew in researching and developing muay thai moves from traditional khon dance and ancient books, turning them into exhilarating on-screen actions.

Cynics were quick to point to "Ong Bak" as harking back to the 1980s, the glory days of Hong Kong action flicks.

"TYG" spares such comparisons, and the final fight scene in Madame Rose's secret hall, which features martial-art choreographed from elephant movements, is a powerful, brutal fight that leaves the audience in a state of happy exhaustion.

Another great scene sees Jaa fighting off dozens of villains as he makes his way up four flights of stairs. That he reaches the top safely within the four minutes allotted for the sequence says much for the actor's powerful energy as well as the production's team's meticulous timing.

"It's incredibly hard to shoot a four-minute action take. It needs careful planning in just about every aspect to ensure safety," says Panna.

It is also a testament to Jaa's commitment to performing every stunt without help from wires or computer graphics.

But while director Prachya tried his best to keep the film clear of digital manipulation, he failed to get permission from Sydney's city fathers to take the pachyderms onto the streets. That is no excuse, however, for the poor quality of the computer graphics used in the scene where Korn takes his young elephant on walkabout on Harbour Bridge.

Likewise, actor Mum Jokmok's natural charm is cloaked by his English-speaking role as Sgt Mark. Local audiences will no doubt find it funny to hear the comedian speaking English for a few minutes. After that it merely becomes boring.

Worse still, the actor doesn't speak the language in real life, so much of his dialogue is delivered so badly that it's hard to understand.

Since most of the movie is shot in Australia, most of the characters speak English. And, to be fair, this Bt250-million Thai movie has been made primarily for an international market.

But surely this could have been done more coherently and by selecting actors with better language skills.

Or are the producers seeking a way of eating our traditional spicy shrimp soup with bread and cheese?

Perhaps it's better to stick to what we know, which is exactly what the director does in the first 20 minutes, with scenes of elephants and crowds at Songkran time. The long-tailed boat chase sequence is also a visual delight and a throwback to classic Thai action movies of the '70s and '80s.

Like other action movies, "TYG" faces serious story issues, and comes across as a collage of action scenes built around a loose sketch of a fight.

Moviegoers will flock to theatres to see Jaa's no holds barred moves, but wouldn't it be better to have him kick the villains with more motivation?

"TYG" also suffers from pacing. For reasons best known to him, Prachya has chosen to follow TV-news reporting guidelines.

Surely a movie director knows a better way to tell a story - or does he?

The movie includes violence, obscenity and rude language.

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