What’s the last movie you’ve seen that started off by showing you a fight that ended with grown men kicking a soccer ball over red-hot coals in a match to the death?
Thought so. As the final film from legendary Thai martial arts choreographer, director, and Tony Jaa-discoverer Panna Rittikrai, Vengeance of the Assassin won’t change any minds on his work and isn’t a career-defining film, but it does show what he did best. The film’s got more action than five films combined, just full of brutal, showstopping moments.
As for what it’s about? Well, don’t worry about that. The plot is disposable, melodramatic nonsense. There’s a couple of brothers who wants to avenge their old-lost parents, an uncle that doesn’t want his nephew growing up to become a killer, a love interest that forms out of a kidnapping. It’s silly and goes on for far too long for a film like this, in which viewers count the minutes to the next set-piece. There’s lot of extraneous junk that will leave you staring at the screen leaden-eyed, forgetting for a minute why exactly you’re even watching this film (or who you even are) until - BAM - a fight explodes out of nowhere.
And then you’ll remember.
Think of Rittikrai’s scripts what you want, but the man knew how to direct action. There’s plenty of elbow and knees thrown here - this is a Thai film, after all - but there’s also plenty of gunplay. One scene is remarkable for not showing the cause of all the violence at all. Our mysterious shooter kills his way through a mob boss’ restaurant and you never see his face throughout the whole sequence, because the camera stays hovering behind his legs, as if in fear of knowing the identity of the man behind these actions.
Rittikrai even takes another attempt at a extended shot, of the type he choreographed for Tom Yum Goong aka The Protector, a minutes-long sequence that will leave you wondering where the cuts are. (There certainly are in this one as it’s a shootout and there are ample opportunities, unlike Tom Yum Goong, which features a stunning, unbroken four-minute steadicam shot. Watch that here if you haven’t.)
But those fights? Hoo boy. They have so much impact that you’ll feel them in your bones, and feature all kinds of wonderful environments in which people beat each other up. There's a scene inside a car shop that sees a license plate wielded as a deadly weapon. There’s the aforementioned soccer ball battle that may be cinema’s finest since Shaolin Soccer. There’s a fight in a building where the combatants knee and elbow their way through SHEETS OF GLASS on their way to impacting flesh. Why the hell would they do that? Why the hell not! It makes for some unique fights, that’s for sure.
That said, it is sad to see even more of a reliance on CGI. Ong Bak was initially marketed on the fact that it didn’t feature any wirework or CGI, and audiences ate it up. After becoming bored for years and years with Hollywood CGI stunts we needed something like this, and countless movies have tried to ape its style. It’s just ironic that the director started to use CGI more and more in his work, culminating in this film, which features a greenscreen fight on top of a moving train that will completely pull you out of the moment and not allow you to appreciate the wonderful stunts that are happening. It makes it so that you never trust the performers in the film, never allowing you to be sure of what was “enhanced”.
While this is far from Panna Rittikrai’s strongest film, Vengeance of the Assassin is a nice showcase of his style, one full of long takes, wonderful stunts, and absurdly jarring moments of violence. See it with a group of like-minded people for best effect.
If you missed Vengeance of the Assassin at the New York Asian Film Festival you can catch it on Blu-ray or dvd now.