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Born to Fight (2004)
3rd Sep 05
A Special Forces cop and a National sports team must together defend a remote Thai village against a ruthless mercenary and his band of guerilla fighters. The rebel leader is demanding the release of a notorious drug lord, and, with a nuclear missile targeted on Bangkok, not only are the lives of the rural villagers under threat, but the fate of the whole country is at stake…
I was fortunate to be staying in Bangkok in January 2003 when Ong-Bak received its World Premiere and brought the Bangkok International Film Festival to a close. Having grown up on a diet of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung films in the late eighties it was immediately clear to me that I was watching something special with Ong-Bak, and the film duly went on to become the highest grossing Thai movie of that year. The film then became a huge favourite on the festival circuit, finding an international audience tired of the conveyor belt of dumb, FX-laden action movies which Hollywood so frequently churns out, and of course it finally secured a cinema release here in the UK in May of this year to much critical acclaim.
Much of Ong-Bak’s success can be attributed to Panna Rittikrai, a pioneer of Thai cinema with, it’s believed, over one hundred productions under his belt during his twenty-five years in the business. It was Rittikrai who discovered Tony Jaa and trained him for four years, and it was Rittikrai who came up with all of the stunt concepts and martial arts choreography that were used in the film. After handling production duties on The Bodyguard (directed by Jaa’s co-star, Petchai Wongkamlau, and due for release on DVD here in September) and before heading to Australia to work on Tom Yum Goong, the second feature from the Ong-Bak team, Rittikrai was asked to write and direct Born To Fight, his first film as a director in more than a decade.
Born To Fight is actually a remake of one of Rittikrai’s early movies which he not only wrote and directed himself, but also designed, choreographed and took the lead role in. However, with today’s budgets and expertise now at his disposal only the title and his unique style of action remain from the original incarnation. The film makes its intentions clear right from the start, placing us in the middle of a drug bust gone sour, without any introduction, then leading straight into a chase with people fighting - and falling off - the roofs of a couple of speeding articulated lorries.
One chap is thrown from one lorry, bounces onto the roof of a passing van and then hits the deck, whilst another poor sod falls between the two lorries and is lucky to avoid getting torn under the spinning wheels. The scene culminates with one lorry plunging over a small cliff and the other - now ablaze - rolling through a shanty town in a homage to Jackie Chan's seminal Police Story. As openings go it's quite an attention grabber!
With our appetite suitably whetted we’re now able to get to know our main characters and a plot can be injected into the proceedings. Daew (Dan Chupong) is a young ambitious cop, racked by guilt after the death of his superior in the aforementioned melee, despite the fact that he was able to capture and arrest their target, infamous drug lord General Yang (Noppol Gomarachun). He decides to take some time out and joins his sister Nui (Kessarin Ektawatkul), a taekwondo athlete, on a National Sports Association trip to the village of Pha-Thong in the north of Thailand where the group are participating in a charity event. Just as Daew and the team of athletes are making friends and giving aid to the villagers they're suddenly attacked by an army of rebel soldiers led by Lor Fei (Santhisook Promsiri), a prominent supporter of General Yang. With all the villagers either dead or held hostage, and with a nuclear weapon targeted on Bangkok, Lor Fei demands that the Prime Minister release General Yang or face the consequences. All of these plot points are covered in the first forty-five minutes of the film, leaving the rest of the time free to concentrate on what this film does best - relentless action, as Daew and his friends fight back!
Born To Fight really is 10% plot and 90% action so rather than cast experienced actors in the key roles, Rittikrai and producer Prachya Pinkaew (Ong-Bak’s director) used mainly stuntmen and real champion athletes, allowing the action scenes to be completely authentic. This is the film’s masterstroke as the wealth of talent on show is a joy to behold. So in addition to taekwondo medallist Ektawatkul, the National Sports Association team includes two gymnasts, a boxer, a rugby player, a takraw champion and a footballer who all bring their individual skills to their roles. Witness, for example, footballer Moo (Amorthep Waesang) who would surely relegate David Beckham to the sub’s bench if he were taking free-kicks for Real Madrid. Or there’s Jo (Suebsak Pansueb), the takraw player who can not only volley hard rattan balls into his opponents’ faces – but also a large pomelo fruit or a boiling kettle if necessary. As for the rest of the supporting characters, well, just wait until you see the one-legged man who really would be useful in an arse-kicking competition!
Then we have Chupong in his first proper acting role, a fellow student of Tony Jaa's and part of the Ong-Bak stunt team. The bloke is just awesome, mixing daredevil stunts and martial arts that will have your jaw permanently fixed to the floor. He’s a one man army and sets about picking off the rebel forces one by one like a thing possessed. One scene in particular feels more like a first person shoot ‘em up game as we track Daew as takes out soldier after soldier, kicking here, punching there, dodging grenades - and all shot in the one long take.
The stunt work is incredible too; if the opening stunts on the lorries weren't thrilling enough, there's a couple of others involving crashing motorbikes which just have to be seen to be believed and I guarantee will have you gasping or shouting “ouch!” out loud. The fact that these are all done for real, without any digital trickery or wire-work, is quite a testament to the bravery (and some would say stupidity) of Chupong and the rest of the stunt team. And of course, in typical Jackie Chan style, you get to see the best stunts filmed from multiple angles – and all the out-takes during the closing credits.
Unlike a lot of other Thai movies Born To Fight eschews the more slapstick moments in favour of a far more serious tone, and I feel it is more successful for that. The sudden, merciless slaughter upon the people of Pha-Thong is brutal and unflinching and you really sit in a state of shock as the innocent warm-hearted villagers who you’ve just met are decimated indiscriminately regardless of age or gender. Rittikrai manages to capture a real bond between Nui and a young village girl and there's an incredibly emotional scene where Nui covers the girl’s eyes just as her father is shot dead right in front of her; this results in a huge surge of righteous justice when the girl later takes the opportunity to stand up to her father’s killer. There’s also a great sense of national pride as Daew rises up to face his aggressors after hearing the Thai national anthem.
However, for all of these positives the film is not perfect. The plot is perhaps a little thin, especially the nuclear weapon element of the story which seems redundant as Lor Fei already has plenty of bargaining power with the Thai Prime Minister simply by holding the surviving villagers hostage, and the resolution of this plot thread is rather lost in all the fighting. The constant techno soundtrack during the second half of the film also needs addressing – its repetitive beat becoming just a little too familiar after thirty minutes of action.
By the end of the film, and with pretty much the whole of Pha-Thong destroyed (the film-makers purpose built over one hundred huts which they could blow-up during the movie), you have to hope that the National Sports Association are going to fund an even bigger charity mission to help rebuild the lives of these poor villagers. There's no denying that Born To Fight is an action movie of the highest calibre with a great number of crowd pleasing moments (did I mention the soldier whose body explodes as he’s blasted by a rocket launcher?) Now if we could only get Panna Rittikrai to choreograph some stunts involving Dan Chupong and Tony Jaa working together, and throw in a quality script to boot, then we’d really have the holy grail of action movies!
Regardless, as things stand it’s fair to say that Jackie Chan can now take a well-earned early retirement - there's some new kids on the block and the crazy Asian action-adventure genre should be in safe hands for many years to come.
Further Information Born To Fight will be released in UK cinemas on 2nd September and will also preview during this year’s FrightFest event at the Odeon West End on Monday 29th August.