In 2003 director Prachya Pinkaew brought Thai cinema to the world with Ong-Bak. The hard-hitting and violent style of muay thai martial arts featured in that movie certainly made a deep impact on the kung-fu movie scene, and after knocking in this wedge Pinkaew is seeking to work it around and broaden Thai cinema's appeal with the more accessible The Kick. Does it rattle your head the same way a roundhouse spin would, or does it just have lots of pulled muscles?
Mun and Yun are two members of Korea's Olympic martial arts squad - they go right to the very top, but in the last blow of the finals Mun is cheated out of a coveted gold medal by a foul which gets waved through by the referee. Twenty years later, Mun and Yun are husband and wife with a family - elder son Taeyun, daughter Taemi, and young sprog Typhoon - and running a Taekwando school in Bangkok. Despite their Olympic pedigree though the school is struggling if their clapped-out van is any indication.
The city is also hosting the unveiling of the Kris of Kings, a historic artefact now being returned to Thailand - one which has also attracted the attention of the dastardly businessman Beom, who fancies the antique for himself. On their way to a martial arts exhibition, the family blunder into and thwart Beom's attempt to steal the Kris of Kings, and Beom will stop at nothing to ensure that they are punished for getting in his way. Can the firm bonds of family triumph against Beom's greed, anger and power?
Well, to start off with, the villain's motivation seems extraordinarily weak. Why he even wants the kris is barely established beyond a single momentary shot of some other krises in the background of his office suggesting that he maybe wants to expand his knife collection? Now I'm not expecting a profound socio-political discourse in a kung-fu movie, but it's not unreasonable for there to be at least some plot; the only reasons for him to be the baddie in this picture seem to be because he wears black and has a sneer. When he orders around a huge mob of goons, casually murders security guards and yells promises of million-dollar bounties to the first one to get those meddling kids, you also wonder whether it would have been cheaper for him to simply buy the damn thing!
Multiple sub-plots spark only to fizzle out as damp squibs. In an early scene it is revealed that the villain's corporation happens to be one of the sponsors of the family's Taekwando club - this is never referred to again despite how it'd be an interesting way to put pressure on the heroes. When the Kris of Kings is introduced it is suggested that it has magical powers, which again is never returned to - while admittedly that can be retrospectively reasoned as the hyperbole of an over-excited musuem spokesman, it sets up unrealistic expectations. The kris was already established as a valuable MacGuffin in its own right when the same speech gives it a $30 million price-tag - the additional supernatural hints just leave the audience building up for a climatic fantastic payoff which never arrives. Partway through the movie Taeyun meets his second cousin and their relationship is set up with romantic tropes suggesting some budding affection between her and Taeyun, but this again goes nowhere and in the end her only role is to make up the numbers during the final fight (maybe partway through the writers thought the family connection, however distant, too awkward and backpedalled). The central character conflict between Taeyun and his father is also abandoned, when it's supposed to be the motor for the family's drama.
Out of all the members of the family, Taeyun chafes the most against his demanding father's insistence on Taekwando mastery, wanting to invest his athletic talents in dancing and singing. To its credit the film does manage to hold some focus on Mun's bitter and curmudgeonly fixation on past glories, and the selfishness of his vicarious living through his children; even his wife calls him out on it, when she asks him whether he regrets abandoning his Olympic career to raise a family - Mun insists that he doesn't, and Yun snaps angrily about why he is forcing Taeyun to be a surrogate medal-winner? It's a valid question, but Mun never has to give an answer as it gets lost in the noise of the final fights. Taeyun's dancing is used as the basis for a good fight-scene when music gives him the moves to take on a big mob single-handed, but after that it's forgotten. Mun does angrily castigate Taeyun when he was attending a dance audition while the rest of the family was embroiled in a fight - the fact that Taeyun arrives in the nick of time to save them from being gunned down like the Valentines' Day Massacre doesn't appear to count for anything, although I guess that if his swellings and bruises didn't mysteriously vanish between shots Taeyun would have more to show for his pains. The film closes on a photo of Taeyun holding an Olympic medal which I suppose was meant to give a positive message of the heartfelt power of family pulling together to triumph over adversity and lead to achievement, but with the way things are left hanging it instead comes across as a mean and dispiriting indication that Taeyun's overbearing father bullied him into submission. It just comes across less as the heartwarming capering of kooky misfits as it does just plain, grey dysfunctionality.
Altogether it's a bit of a disaster when family relationships are supposed to be at the heart of the cast and our reason to root for the heroes. Our kung-fu family has little real chemistry - even when he's not obsessing over Taekwando, Mun is unlikable grouch. For pity's sake, when he's having an anniversary dinner with Yun he moans that the candles are a fire hazard! The siblings don't have all that much to say to each other outside of training and fighting scenes.
So then, what about that fighting? The Kick is professionally produced with a wide variety of locations and good lighting. The movie is an action-comedy which interposes some slapstick comedy between and into the fight, which is inoffensive but sometimes confusing (the family's exhibition has a lot of pratfalls, but it's not clear whether it's a failure or part of the act) and leads to a couple of bits of ropey CG with one baddie being facehugged by an octopus and another running around with his pants on fire. The fight scenes themselves are a mixed bag. Individual scenes have a lot of good moves and there are some clever ideas involving the wider scenery - bystanders get shoved around into an obstacle course during a chase in a busy street, fights aren't just straight-up punch-ups but are elaborated by the usage of props and scenery, and environmental features are also worked into the action - in one funny scene a pursuit is conducted not at a sprint but an anxious, contorting, whispered tip-toe as the situation demands it; a scene in a kitchen where the fighters make kettle-drum music in time to beating each other with pots and pans is also very entertaining.
However, the film does start to run out of steam. A final showdown at Bangkok Zoo was probably intended to come across as relentlessly action-packed but runs out of puff to stagger on as tiresomely protracted as each individual family member splits off to fight his own group of baddies. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but after one person is shown fighting it cuts away to the rest of the family, and then a good five minutes later it cuts back again to show that first person still fighting the same enemies - at this point you start to remember the Longest Fight Ever sketches from The Fast Show...
While it doesn't affect all of the film there are several shots where goons go flying even though the kicks clearly don't come even remotely close to connecting, and others where a target is already starting his fall before the blow's been landed. It sticks out like a sore thumb, but in fairness that idiom is more relevant than you might first realise. You can perhaps understand how the margins came to be set so wide - the outtakes reel played during the credits is quite a revelation. Most movies just have their cast tripping over props or fluffing their lines, but The Kick shows what happens when those wild spinning roundhouses get misjudged and are actually landed! Multiple actors and actresses (including the principals) are shown staggering around concussed, curled up clutching ice-packs or even taken away in ambulances... it's nothing short of a massacre! Still, while it's interesting to see the real effort behind kung-fu movies, this sort of problem can't be unique to The Kick, and if other movies can choreograph around it then so should a modern production like this.
The dub is quite classically chopsocky - the voice acting itself is competent but makes no effort to match the speaking of the actors themselves (memorably in one scene where Taeyun is speaking to a silent telephone). It's always interesting to see how anime ADRs always take efforts to write scripts that match the lip-flaps of the characters with painstaking care - whereas the live-action movies cheerfully disregard the whole thing.
A mystifying decision within this dub was its intent to pursue a higher age rating. The dub includes completely unnecessary swearing - needless antagonising of the censors when the atmosphere of the movie does not warrant it - and the combat is almost bloodless, largely PG and at worst a 12A; there are a couple of light red patches on clothing from some knife-slashes but they scarcely count as papercuts against the image of bone-breaking gory bloodletting that the actual rating might lead you expect. Perhaps it was felt that a higher rating was necessary in order to engage the kung-fu movie fanbase, but the swearing pointlessly excludes a family audience from a film which is in all other respects harmless, and dedicated martial arts enthusiasts might sit down only to feel that they were oversold - the promotional materials patterned after the design of Kick-Ass (and a cheeky Bruce Lee-style yellow jumpsuit on the DVD case which actually doesn't appear at all in the movie) are a bit misleading. All in all they've shot themselves in the foot with this strategy and it defeats the film's purpose of accessibility.
In 2011 Pinkaew released two movies, The Kick and Elephant White (with Golden Globe-winner Kevin Bacon), and unfortunately it appears that his interest was mostly invested in the latter. The Kick has good production values and the fights are decent with a lot of variety - even though Korean Taekwando is a foreign style Pinkaew and his stunt co-ordinator Rittikrai have no trouble depicting it - but while good on a technical level the atmosphere doesn't really charge them with any vitality and it's a fairly listless experience. The film insists that the family that kicks together, sticks together - but even when they spin at thin air and trip over each other?