For Western audiences, part of the allure of 80s and 90s Hong Kong action cinema was the belief that even the big name actors did all their own stunts. Having grown sick of pampered Hollywood pretty boys who were largely reliant on their stuntmen to make them look good, diehard action fans flocked to Hong Kong movies starring the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, perhaps attracted not only to the amazing feats of derring-do committed onscreen, but also to the palpable sense of danger that these films possessed. But as years went on, not only did big name martial artists in Hong Kong cinema start to show their age, but fewer and fewer of the actors were as well-versed in the martial arts as their illustrious predecessors. As a result, Hong Kong action cinema suffered considerably in the intervening years.
But with the release of Ong Bak in 2003, Thailand would pick up the slack, as action wunderkind Tony Jaa almost singlehandedly put Thai action films on the map. If Hong Kong action films felt dangerous, the Thai versions felt downright criminal, as one began to wonder about the mortality rate for Thai stuntmen. And in 2008, a new phenom emerged on the Thai action scene with the release of Chocolate. Star Jeeja Yanin (aka Yanin Vismistananda) was hailed as the female Tony Jaa, and although the film was not nearly as polished as Ong Bak or Jaa’s Tom Yum Goong were, Chocolate heralded the arrival of a major new talent and suggested that Thai action cinema had a great future in front of it.
Fast forward a year later and Yanin starred in Raging Phoenix, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to Chocolate, produced by Prachya Pinkaew and choreographed by Panna Rittikrai, the same team responsible for Yanin’s debut, Ong Bak, and Tom Yum Goong, among others. Does Raging Phoenix live up to the promise of its predecessor? To answer that question, one must recall that the legend of the phoenix in mythology isn’t solely about a mythical bird rising from the ashes. It’s also a story about one that goes down in flames.
Raging Phoenix kicks off promisingly with a hyperkinetic introduction to the life and times of Deu (Jija Yanin), the highly volatile drummer for a low-rent punk band. Unfortunately, Deu’s violent response to her romantic problems gets her summarily tossed out of the group. Down on her luck and three sheets to the wind, Deu finds herself kidnapped by a team of nefarious transsexuals who are a part of the evil Jaguar Gang. Why do they have to be transgendered? It’s not entirely clear. The casually tossed-off identity of her abductors turns out to be only the first of many more “WTF” moments that will ensue over the course of this very silly film.
Luckily for Deu, she’s rescued by Sanim (Kazu Patrick Tang), the badass leader of a ragtag team of martial artists that specializes in the rescue of kidnapped women. After hitting it off with Sanim and his crew, Deu persuades them to train her in the ways of the Force, er, Meyraiyuth, a totally made-up martial art that combines drunken boxing with Capoeira. A montage or two later, Deu emerges from the training as a Drunken Capoeira genius, which makes her more than ready to storm the Jaguar Gang’s fortress and face off with their bikini-clad, transgendered Amazonian leader, London (Roongtawan Jindasing).
While you’re recovering from the initial shock of who this film is trying to pass off as a viable antagonist, this might be a good time for me to explain why these poor women are getting abducted by the Jaguar Gang in the first place. It’s a real doozy, so make sure you’re sitting down. Here goes: it seems that the evil gang only kidnaps women with a particular smell, as the Jaguar Gang distills their tears to manufacture high quality beauty products. The tears themselves contain chemical properties of untold cosmetic power. Now I don’t know how scientific or even believable any of this is, but then again, one has to remember that this is a movie in which the kidnappers wear bladed pogo-sticks on each leg when pursuing their victims. They also don’t seem to own a single gun amongst their entire multi-tiered, presumably lucrative criminal organization.
Yet despite all this over-the-top nuttiness, Raging Phoenix begins promisingly enough from a pure filmmaking standpoint, as it beautifully details a series of events involving Deu connected by a myriad of simple but inventive match cuts taking us from scene to scene. And throughout the film, this same innovative, elegant style re-emerges whenever the focus turns to the more dialogue-driven, dramatic moments. Shockingly, it’s when the film cuts to the action – the actual main draw of this whole clunky endeavor – that the scenes play out in the most pedestrian manner possible.
It doesn’t help that the film asks us to believe that Deu is able to make the leap from novice to full-on Capoeira superhero after a few intensive training sessions. True, many male-led action films ask us to swallow similar plots. However, the main problem with Raging Phoenix is that there’s no weight and a very minimal impact to all the onscreen fighting. While I appreciate that the filmmakers eschew the frenetic, shaky-cam action popularized by the Bourne films, instead choosing to shoot the sequences from afar to let the stuntmen do their work, the resultant action scenes look strangely ordinary.
There’s no question that Jeeja Yanin, Kazu Patrick Tang, and the rest of the stunt team are amazingly talented; it’s just that the execution is sorely lacking. The “breakdance fighting” is so weak that it feels like you’re watching a dance event that’s supposed to look like a fight, rather than a fight that has the elegance of a dance routine. When a lot of kicks and punches don’t look like they’ve landed, it’s hard to get too involved in the fight scenes.
And if it’s not the style of fighting that’s lacking, it’s the venue. Case in point: rather than have Deu face off with the Amazonian London in some grueling one-on-one battle, the film tries to up the ante with the inclusion of “dangerous” setting – a flimsy rope bridge over seemingly bottomless abyss. Unfortunately, some really dodgy CGI makes this whole sequence play out like a watered down version of similar events already covered in the second and third Indiana Jones films.
Despite its action pedigree, Raging Phoenix is a “raging” disappointment. With Tony Jaa out of commission for the foreseeable future after his Colonel Kurtz-like meltdown on the set of Ong Bak 2, somebody’s got to pick up the slack. Hopefully, promising young action star Jeeja Yanin can rise from the ashes in her next film, 2011’s Jak Ka Ran. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)