Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Kung Fu (?) Night! Dynamite Warrior

It's Dy-no-mite! (Ugh, that was bad.)

Dynamite Warrior (Khon fai bin), directed by Chalerm Wongpim. Starring Dan Chupong, Puttipong Swriwat, and Panna Rittikrai. Produced by Prachya Pinkaew. Magnolia Pictures (2007). Not Rated.

Read other reviews here.

How do I put this? Days later, I'm still...blinking at this movie. Like every time I think of it, my eyes can't believe what they really saw and so they try to clear themselves for another look. It's one whacked-out film, though, come to think of it, it's not nearly as whacked out as some of the stuff Hong Kong has produced.

Since I can't find a theater in Utah showing Chocolate, I've had to go elsewhere for my Muay Thai fix, and I landed on Dynamite Warrior. Not a bad choice. It's a film that leans heavily on fun visuals and succeeds in spite of its hard-to-follow plot.

Let's see if I can get this right. It's the 1920s, I think, and Thai farmers are in need of buffalo to run their bigger farms, so buffalo traders move their herds across the countryside doing their buffalo-trading thing. But evil villain Lord Wang (Puttipong Swirat), a cackling Thai version of Snidely Whiplash, wants to sell the farmers his evil new-fangled Western tractors. When the buffalo-loving farmfolk refuse to buy, he hires an evil criminal (Somdej Keawlue) to kill all the buffalo traders so the buffalo shortage will force everyone to buy his tractors! Ha! And the evil criminal's secret weapon? He becomes invincible whenever he gets hungry.

In the midst of this is Jone Bang Fai (Dan Chupong), a Robin-Hoodish hero who uses a combination of of bamboo rockets and,, martial arts stuff, to beat the living daylights out of cattle traders and give their buffalo to poor farmers. He also shoots flinty sparks out of his fingers and occasionally rides the rocket, literally. The reason for his behavior? Well, when he was a young Buddhist monk, a tattooed cattle trader killed his parents, so now he's out for revenge. Get it?

It so happens that the tattooed cattle trader is a wizard with the power of touch-free-fu, with which he can smack people around from a distance just by pointing his fist at them. When he at last encounters this nemesis, Jone Bang Fai is so heck-bent on revenge that he teams up with the odious Lord Wang and that hungry dude, and together they all go to visit the Black Wizard, who happens to be the nemesis of that other wizard, and the Black Wizard has a beautiful daughter Jone Bang Fai has the hots for, and they need her menstrual blood to disempower that other wizard...oh man, I just got lost.

Never mind the plot. It's all about the visuals. The wire-enhanced action sequences are excellent if not exactly unique. The most fun fights are the ones where the wizards hit people from a distance, but Jone Bang Fai's unique use of rockets as both weapons and vehicles is a lot of fun, and it's great when he sets off hundreds of rockets simultaneously simply by flicking sparks from his hands. The film opens with a prolonged, expansive fight sequence in a pasture, where Jone Bang Fai single-handedly whoops about fifty people, all of whom get up afterwards, only a little hurt--because Jone Bang Fai is the good guy, you see, so he only tries to kill his archenemy; his use of deadly attack moves and explosives doesn't seriously harm anyone else. The same cannot be said for the film's villains, however, who hack limbs, slice throats, and sometimes bite off hunks of bloody flesh in sequences that would easily earn an R-rating from the MPAA on account of their having subtitles and not being made in Hollywood.

But really, it's the little, atmospheric things that make this film a visual treat: the rockets, the landscapes, the straw hats, the ponchos or whatever those are, and the loads and loads of really bad teeth. I've never seen a movie with so many bad teeth. Want to know if a character's evil? Check his mouth. Also, this movie has probably the most over-killed archvillain in cinema history. I won't explain that; you'll have to see it for yourself because you won't believe me if I tell you.

Where was I? Ah yes, the revenge motif. Why is it, anyway, that most martial arts films are about revenge? You killed my mother/father/best friend/girlfriend/sensei/third cousin and now you must die! You and your six hundred incompetent henchmen!

Overdone high-flying martial arts action is almost always fun to watch, except in slow-paced, sucky, artsy martial arts movies like House of Flying Daggers (arrggh!), but the cold-blooded vengeance that often moves these films doesn't exactly make for a compelling hero, at least not by itself. Sometimes a martial arts film may play on that fact, as in, for example, Bruce Lee's debut, Fists of Fury, in which Lee's character breaks his promise never to fight and slays a mobster (and the mobster's six hundred incompetent henchmen) for murdering his family. But in the end, Lee is arrested for the killings and he has nothing to show for his day's work except a heap of corpses and a few gratuitous naked breast shots. It lets you revel in the violence, as a martial arts movie inevitably does, but the message is clear: Revenge doesn't pay.

Rather than showing gratuitous naked breast shots, Dynamite Warrior takes an approach to the revenge theme that's surprisingly elegant considering the deliberately goofball storyline. Jone Bang Fai, on account of his revenge-seeking, ends up in a very bad crowd, hanging out with characters who have been clearly established as the real forces of evil in the film: the cackling tractor salesman, the limb-hacking cannibal, and the creepy Black Wizard dude. Although it's easy to enjoy Jone Bang Fai's outrageous rocket attacks and his devastating Muay Thai stunts, he is, at least for half the movie, easy to dislike and hard to sympathize with. Right from the start, he's beating the living daylights out of people who, for all we know, have done nothing wrong. Because of the revenge motif at the movie's heart, this lack of sympathy for the hero actually works in the film's favor--and gives it a chance to build sympathy for the very man Jone Bang Fai is trying to kill, a man who appears to be a simple, honest trader who enjoys herding buffalo and gossiping with his friends (and occasionally indulging some touch-free-fu).

The real drive of the movie, then, is the transformation of the hero, who has to realize that maybe his life's work hasn't been such a good idea. Maybe he shouldn't beat the crud out of people for no reason. Maybe revenge isn't so hot a motive. Maybe there are other villains in the near vicinity who are much more in need of an old-fashioned, down-home Muay Thai beatin'.

But the really golden scene of the movie is the one where two men are arguing about menstruation. I'm sorry, but that's freakin' hilarious.

Content Advisory: Contains stylized action violence, brief scenes of blood and gore, and occasional coarse language.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Dynamite Warrior:

Myth Rating: High (you know, all those typical themes and stuff)

Quality: Medium-High (good-looking and fun with some elements that get lost in the mix)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (pretty good for this kind of film; ultimately has very likable characters; some especially violent imagery)
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