Tony Jaa, the new martial arts superstar of the breakout hit Ong Bak, began his career 12 years ago under the tutelage of Panna Rittikrai, Thailand's answer to Jackie Chan. I haven't seen Ong Bak, nor have I seen The Protector, the newest Jaa vehicle, so aside from the box cover for Spirited Killer I don't even know what the guy looks like.
Thankfully I had some scotch tape, and managed to stick the box up beside the TV screen in a desperate attempt to match facial features with any of the two dozen or so main characters in Spirited Killer.
However, I can safely say that aside from the two women, and the immortal/monster/spirit of the forest played by Panna Rittikrai, every role in the film is played by Tony Jaa.
Spirited Killer is a regular Jaaaaamboree!
See, because this DVD is so shamelessly cashing in on Ong Bak, even to the point of using stills from that film on the DVD sleeve, Tony Jaa of today doesn't look anything like Tony Jaa of 12 years ago. Maybe he's like Jet Li from The One, in that he is little more than a bunch of pixels being swung around a green screen somewhere. Oh wait, that would cost money… Although Panna Rittakrai is often compared to Jet Li and Jackie Chan he is much more akin to Hong Kong auteur Godfrey Ho than either Chan or Li. That said, the fight choreography is better in Rittakrai's flicks than Ho's, but the stories aren't as head-injury-induced goofy. Still, without Rittikrai's commitment to associated Thai culture with brainless, microbudget, action cinema, Tony Jaa would not be an international superstar rivaling Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Lorenzo Lamas, no, he would no doubt be barking tourists into one of Bangkok's Ladyboy strip bars.
Spirited Killer looks like it cost almost as much to make as a double size order of Pad Thai. The script was most likely written on a couple of bar napkins, and aside from film stock, one camera, and some editing time, the thing was virtually filmed for free. The story, as insane and preposterous as it is, would have made a really fun little 20 minute martial arts short. But this monstrosity runs at least 700 hours, 699.99 of those hours are fight scenes.
We begin in the forest (we never actually leave the forest… anyway) where Dr. Duong is huckstering three Tony Jaa's and an old woman with some ersatz magic potion that promises immortality to the young and eternal youth and beauty to the old, which even a I type it sounds like exactly the same thing.
But, it's really poison and two of the Jaa's and the old woman die. Tony Jaa fights Duong then runs back to his village for help. Then, with the help of The Tony Jaa Gang, Tony Jaa catches Duong and apparently kills him.
There is much happiness in Tony Jaa Land! So much so that one of the women in the cast, "Faa", sings a song about it. I have no idea what the words are, they're in Thai, but it sounds like something you'd hear in a Bollywood film.
Cut to a bunch of people walking through the forest. Time may have passed between Duong's death and these events, but I can't read Thai and that's all I had to work with on screen. In case you've never seen it, Thai text sort of looks like a series of m's and w's and u's, so after the Jaamboree murders Duong the screen throws up a subtitle that looks like:
Which may mean "one year later" it may also mean, "the next day" or possibly "two-for-one fried shrimp and noodles".
Like I said, I don't read Thai.
Anyway, the Tony Jaa's bump into a guy standing in the middle of the dirt road. Rather than, oh I don't know, walk around him and wish him good day, they goad him into a fight. Meet Panna Rittikrai, you'll be seeing a whole lot of him.
The next thousand hours or so will feature a decreasing number of Tony Jaa's fighting against Panna Rittikrai until they finally sort of kill him at the end.
But in the brief seconds of between-fight talking we learn that a small group of Japanese (Thai) students is on an archaeological expedition to Jaa Land to study "relics". Also, a small group of Chinese (Thai) art smugglers are looking for Ruby Cave to find the source of "Holy Metal" a metal worth so much that it's worth 400 million dollars.
But all is not happy in the Village of Jaa. Aside from the fact that the villagers have the attention span of a gnat and seem to have no recollection of any of the men who died at the hands of Panna Rittikrai, they still are able to rouse a small army of rubber machete wielding Jaa's to trek out into the forest to confront the "robber."
You'd think one of them would say, "You know what, fuck that. I'm staying home."
The Japanese (Thai) expedition is apparently made up not only of college students and one salaryman, but they are all also ninjas. We learn when they group is attacked by bandits on the way to the village. We know they are bandits because Rittikrai has the four men wrap their heads in tablecloths to prevent us from seeing that they are all played by Tony Jaa. The Japanese (Thai) students kick the shit out of them and they run away only to be killed by "the robber".
The next group to meet "the robber" is the Chinese (Thai) art smugglers. Most of them die too except the expedition leader (Tony Jaa), Mute (Tony Jaa), Mute's friend (Tony Jaa), and the Other Guy (Tony Jaa).
Everyone arrives at the village. The Japanese (Thai) students offer to help fight "the robber" as do the Chinese (Thai). All of the Tony Jaa's tromp back out into the woods and are killed in an increasingly long series of fights where rubber swords slap against Rittikrai's back.
In the midst of all this, Dr. Duong returns and seems to have the same impervious-to-attack powers as Rittikrai. Either that or they are working together. Maybe they are fraternal twins? Or boyfriends?
The gang is forced back to the village where The Chief (Tony Jaa) announces that he cannot allow anyone else to sacrifice themselves and he will fight "the robber" and Dr. Duong himself. Of course though everyone fights anyway until a mysterious old man (Tony Jaa) appears and gives one of the Tony Jaa's a machete made of Holy Metal which kills both Duong and :"he robber". OR DOES IT!!!
I have no idea really. The last shot of the film is Rittikrai's face popping into frame and the words:
I dunno… I think I could have lived a full and happy life without this movie.
If you can ignore the barest hints of a story in here and concentrate on the fight scenes (not hard since that's pretty much all you get) there is a lot of nice fight work going on, and good camera work too. Rittikrai seems to move effortlessly between styles so he can do Kung Fu, Karate, Muy Thuy, and a host of other move-fu stunty-stunts too. But it's barely enough to keep even the most ardent chop-socky disciple happy.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, which is nice, but no work at all was done to color correct the stock, which is not so nice. There are dozens of scenes that are washed out or tinted orange or blurry or covered in scratches.
The DVD offers two vocal tracks, original Thai with English subs and a new English Dub that sounds like it was done by either the guys who make Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, or three friends (one female) who have access to the sound lab at a local community college.
BCI/Eclipse releases Spirited Killer with a whole bunch of extras. There is a caveat though. The extras suck. We get to spend a few minutes with David Asavinod giving us the barest information ever about any film director who ever lived. The first is "Master of Action: Panna Rittikrai" where we learn that he made films and get to see clips from a dozen of them without any useful information like titles, dates of production, etc…
The next is "Thailand Dangerous" where we spend a few more seconds with David Asavinod and see clips from some unnamed Hong Kong movies shot in Thailand during some year. Honestly, haven't these guys ever watched The History Channel? Documentaries need to convey some sort of information and these really aren't giving us much to hang our "give a shit" on.
Finally there's an interview with Mr. Jaa shot via "Fan Cam" this begins with the Wu Tang Clan so I shut it off. There's a couple more pieces one on Tony Jaa: Thailand's Favorite Son and another short piece about Muy Thuy "Ong Bak's Deadly Art" (also the national sport of Thailand, but don't let reality get in the way of the hype). I am sure if they cross marketed Major League on DVD in Bangkok there would be short on "Baseball: America's Deadly Pastime".
Anyway. If you are with a bunch of friends with an appreciation for the stupid and absurd, then this movie is tons of fun. If, like me, you foolishly watch it alone, then it's on par with just about any ultra low budget Hong Kong actioner from the early 1980s featuring Ninjas filled with upholstery stuffing, i.e. you'll claw your eyes out and gnaw off your legs to escape.
And shit, I still don't know what this Jaa-guy guy looks like.