Magnolia Home Entertainment
Cast: Tony Jaa
Petchtai Wongkamlao is reputedly all the rage in Thailand as primarily a comedian with the tags of director, film writer and action hero to boot. As Asian cinema lately continues to impress with boldness, traditional (and often breathtaking) stunt delivery and an off-kilter style of humor, enter Wongkamlao and Thailand into the martial arts pandemonium arena.
Somewhere between Jackie Chan, "Kung Fu Hustle" and "Ichi the Killer" does Wongkamlao's wacky "The Bodyguard" duo operate. Obviously you can forget cameo appearances by Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, but you do get cameos from Ong-Bak's lightning quick Tony Jaa and other Thai celebrities such as singers Surachai Juntimatorn and Yingyong Yodbuangam, as well as twin kuno mutai boxers Kaokor and Khaosai Galaxy amongst others.
Wongkamlao essentially plays the same role in both films though to far different latitudes (pay very close attention to last frame of "The Bodyguard 2" before the credits roll and scratch your head in wonderment after watching the first film—the second one's a prequel, folks) in which he's a lone wolf bodyguard to a prosperous Thai crime mogul in "The Bodyguard," and a secret agent cowering from an abusive wife in the sequel.
The name of the game of these films is comedy in the guise of action films. Wongkamlao makes no bones that he places comedy ahead of his considerable stunts, explosions, teeth knocking and bloodletting. Bare ass gags, cleavage humor, slapstick, cornball jokery, cheeky references to off-camera direction from the cast and over-the-top mockery of the action genre at-large drives Wongkamlao as a filmmaker. As a result, expect to see him shimmy and dance in the middle of a prolonged fight sequence at the end of the first Bodyguard film, which plays like an ode to Bruce Lee's "Game of Death." Both Lee and Wongkamlao have to duke it out with multiple challengers, each more inherently goofier than the next, though nobody will match Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his massive footprint tattooed on the middle of Lee's chest.
In both of Wongkamlao's Bodyguard films, his character Wong Kom (known as Khamlao on the second film) is largely addicted to taking out his opposition with firearms and wild chase sequences (the most brilliant being the mid-air collision of four vehicles in the first movie), but at the end of each, he must rely on wits, physical endurance to withstand top-flight wire-aided whuppings and of course, his fists. In the first film, Wongkamlao is called upon to perform an extensive foot chase through Bangkok's Victory Monument in the nude, which he notes in the extras section is the most embarrassing moment of his career. No wonder he couldn't get a stand-in!
Wongkamlao is a sharp director with an attentive eye for detail as well as instinct of what scene best constitutes humor instead of action and vice-versa. Of course, his gonzo style means both come into quirky alliances at times, but then again, watching Wongkamlao take down a hulking opponent in The Bodyguard 2 with a flotilla of blows using a factory helmet after the brute absorbs everything Wongkamlao has dished out by fist…now that's comedy.
The only detriment to Wongkamlao's films is his pacing of the middle ground material. Both films open with larger-than-life action sequences and both conclude with outrageously silly conflicts. Both each have out-of-nowhere fight sequences starring Tony Jaa, who temporarily steals the show from Wongkamlao both times, and who sets himself up for a whimsical punchline delivery by his host. Jaa's appearance as a grocery shopper in the first Bodyguard who doesn't hear all the chaos of gangsters shooting it up due to his blaring headphones is a bit unrealistic, but it's also a very funny way to get his quick limbs into action and to satisfy the martial arts junkies who are probably growing itchy in the pants from Wongkamlao's gunplay and going-nowhere exposition of minor characters.
His motivation in the first Bodyguard film is to appropriate his failure when his charge is killed under his safeguard. The son of Wongkamlao's employer Chot Petchpantakam (whom it is revealed has long employed Wongkamlao and his ancestors in protective positions) for all intents and purposes fires Wongkamlao after losing his father, then goes underground into the domicile of a slum family when his own life is threatened. Here is where The Bodyguard meanders too long on the son, Chaichol (Piphat Apiraktanakom), and his blossoming romance with a young girl Pok (Pumwaree Yodkamol), who is considered leader of the squatter's house that consists of a daffy array of family and friends. Considering the film is called "The Bodyguard, "for it to dwell too long without Wongkamlao's presence, despite seizing the opportunity to cram as much one-liner gags as possible, it just isn't doing the title full justice.
In the second film, Wongkamlao goes incognito on a special assignment after his capture of a wanted terrorist in the opening sequence is so costly the police force nearly fires him on the spot. If that sounds like "Beverly Hills Cop" or "Rush Hour," perhaps there's no coincidence. However Wongkamlao takes his character into a chuckle zone that leads him from a life of matrimonial misery and penile envy of others into a high-profile assignment that makes him a national recording star. Naturally, he scores a hit with a song filled by lyrics venting against his wife. Of course, this is all a front for his covert operation that takes him deeper into his record exec's seedy crime business, ala Enter the Dragon, which sets up for an equally crazy fight to the finish. Wonghamlao's laughable rogue's gallery for the big brawl scene in "The Bodyguard 2" is set within a warehouse and his humor is so subtle and hilariously point-blank one of them is a Japanese warrior surrounded by a periphery of candles. In other words, Wonghamlao mocks the traditional feudal codes of Japan in a more industrialized setting and pulls it off with such savory stupidity it's impossible not to chuckle.
Yes, these films slow to a crawl at times, and yes, there's an affinity for gay roasting (or toasting, if that's how you read it) that's squeamishly lame in certain spots. The concept that "The Bodyguard 2" is actually supposed to take place ahead of the first film doesn't quite read that way to the audience until the final scene. Overall, however, "The Bodyguard" films has one fist in the mouth and the other tugging on the funny bone, so much even the masters of comedic kung fu Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow can appreciate them. Both films are big budget ("The Bodyguard 2" reportedly cost 100,000,000 Baht, a decent chunk of that being just for the expensive cars in the opening chase sequence) and when the action heats up, both films look well-invested.
Petchtai Wongkamlao has created a pair of films undoubtedly beaconing on chop socky junkie Quentin Tarantino's radar. Despite the crawling pace both films surrender to between some pretty electrifying action sequences and a number of gut-busting sight gags (the opening licks administered in "The Bodyguard 2" will have you rolling ten minutes after their delivery), these looney tune shoot 'em ups are likely destined to become cult classics within a few years.