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A review of "The Bodyguard" (2004)

The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

If you can get past the casual homophobia and you don't mind suffering a few jokes that don't totally hit home, The Bodyguard is a solid action-comedy from Thailand that plays out like a healthy mix of Ong Bak, King of Beggars, and Drunken Master.  It's got some excellent gags and one of the best opening sequences I've ever had the pleasure to see in a movie.  If you have ever found Stephen Chow even remotely funny, you'll want to check this out - it's not one of his, but many of the comic sensibilities are similar.

My Rating:  3.5 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

So, since some crazy stuff's going down in Thailand lately, I'll express my concern for the safety and well-being of their people in the only way I know how: by watching a movie and talking about it.

This week I'm reviewing the 2004 directorial debut of Mum Jokmok, The Bodyguard.

If you're an American, you'll most likely recognize Mum from his role as the bumbling sidekick / comic relief character in Ong Bak.  (The Bodyguard actually features several of the same cast members, including a brief cameo by Tony Jaa in which he shows up out of nowhere to beat up a few bad guys, make fun of Mum, and then leave.)

If you're an American, you're probably also like me in that I didn't really have any idea who Mum Jokmok is.  It turns out he's kind of a big deal.  His resume is fairly extensive and he's among the more popular actors and comedians in Thailand.  After having his big break in Ong Bak, which actually did get some major playtime in the US, Mum gathered enough cred to be given a budget for his own movie in 2004.

The result is a bizarre experiment that casts Mum as an action hero opposite people who are far more imposing than he is.  It's a wacky, slapsticky, absurd comedy that only occasionally pretends to have fight scenes.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

Mum plays Wongkom, a generally stone-faced straight man who serves as a bodyguard to the wealthy Petchpantakarn family.  When their patriarch is killed, his heir, Chaichol, fires Wongkom and begins to take over the family's business ventures.  Unfortunately, a gang of thugs led by one of Chaichol's employees seeks to kidnap him and force him to sign over his power of attorney so that they can control the vast Petchpantakarn fortune.

After an ambush goes wrong, Chaichol accidentally falls into a garbage truck and winds up abandoned in a slum near a landfill.  He lays low for awhile, thinking he will return to safety when the gang of assassins backs down, but meets and falls in love with a gorgeous young woman who lives in the slum.

Meanwhile, Wongkom kinda dicks around and fights a bunch of people.

Eventually the gangsters track Chaichol down and kidnap him, and then Wongkom must come to his rescue.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Zaniness

The plot isn't really the reason you want to watch this movie.  The joy of it comes from Wongkom's strange and wonderful antics.

I don't want to just summarize and spoil everything, so instead I'd like to give a brief play-by-play of the movie's opening scene to give you a sense of what this movie is: a series of overwrought action scenes where each moment tries to outdo the one that just came before.  Think of the climax from Hot Fuzz played out over an hour forty.

It starts with a fancy dinner party.  Everybody's dressed up in tuxes and evening gowns, and there's a live orchestra playing some classical music.  Life is calm and pleasant.  But then we stay focused a little too long on a suspicious-looking security camera....

Suddenly, the camera starts booming - it's actually a gun in disguise!  Somebody's shooting at Petchpantakarn and trying to kill him!

Wongkom leaps into action and pushes him to safety.  All of a sudden, the classically-trained musicians - who have been playing beautifully so far - stand up and whip out more guns.  Turns out they're actually assassins who just mastered their instruments and practiced for a long time as a cover to sneak up on their target!  A few of them pull a Mariachi and crack open their violins / cellos / etc. to reveal even more guns, and mayhem breaks out.

The gunfire continues, and Mum continues to shove Petchpantakarn around to keep him out of danger.  But soon, the shoving turns into throwing.  He'll literally toss his boss over his shoulder or drop-kick him to the other side of the room to keep him away from the spray of bullets.  Mum does some wire-fu and shoots with perfect precision, taking out many of the baddies.

He grabs his boss and tosses him through a bullet-riddled wall, breaking through to the outdoors so they can make an escape.  Mum and Petchpantakarn run for a limo off in the parking lot... except that there's villains in the parking lot, too!  Four cars full of bad guys line up and hit the gas, each of them planning to run down the target and finish things.

But Mum won't let it go that easily - he shoots again, killing each of the drivers.  Suddenly, all four cars swerve at the exact same time and each of them drives up four equidistant ramps, and they become airborne all at once - then crash in the air just behind Mum and hit the ground in an enormous pile of car explosions.

Then Petchpantakarn dies anyway because he's been shot like forty times already.

Boom.  That's how you open a movie.  [Mic drop.]

The movie never manages to top the insanity of this opening sequence, but there are plenty of other great moments.  There's a great scene where Wongkom is cornered in his apartment and makes a nude escape, a terrific fight scene at a grocery store with an incomprehensible thug and some inept police officers, and a ridiculous final confrontation in which Wongkom defeats his rival through the power of dance.

For the most part, Mum has an excellent sense of comic timing and the movie never goes on for too long without trying to set up a joke.

Unfortunately... that might also be the movie's greatest failure.  It's always trying for a gag, but when it's not playing off of Mum's antics, the results are mixed.

The Bit Wherein I Invoke Cultural Relativism and Try to Ignore Nasty Issues

Any time I review (or think about reviewing) a foreign movie, I always wonder what people who live in that country think about it.  Do those visitors think I'm full of crap because I'm watching the movie through too blurry a lens?  Do they think of me as being an impaired viewer?  Are they frustrated that I'm not pointing out more nuanced elements of the comedy, perhaps references or allusions that a dumb Yank like myself couldn't notice?

This kind of worry is going full force with a movie like The Bodyguard.  I know next to nothing about Thailand.  I'm aware of some of the stereotypes and perceptions that dummies in my country might have, but I don't have any concept of a Truth that should fill in the void where that garbage has been tossed out.

This becomes a problem when you get to some of the more bigoted(?) parts of the movie.  I'm not even sure if it's fair to call them bigoted - for all I know, this is actually a very sweet and caring depiction of people that I'm misinterpreting because I don't understand the subtleties of Thai culture.  But from where I'm sitting, there's some pretty damn insensitive stuff here.  Some cringe-worthy, uncomfortable stuff.

I teased that the movie's humor doesn't always land, and this is a big part of the reason why.  There's a lot of homophobic slurs tossed out at random, a few sight gags where the punchline simply seems to be that somebody is a cross-dresser, and a recurring bit where the villain's primary henchman - who appears to have Down's Syndrome - keeps calling people "retards."

There's also a completely meaningless scene where an obese woman is beaten up by her abusive dwarf husband and then literally thrown out into the street, where she runs away crying.  It plays exactly as well as Verne Troyer's bit in Bubble Boy.

The overall effect is that the movie just makes me think of what would happen if you gave a camera to a bunch of thirteen year-olds.  On the one hand, you'll get a lot of spirited and excitable nonsense that can be infectious and fun to watch.  On the other hand, you'll just keep clicking your tongue and saying, "Geeze, kid, you've got a lot of growing up to do."

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

The good news is that the movie has enough heart and warmth that I don't think it is an intentionally cruel film.  Since I'm still new to Thai cinema overall, I may want to revisit this in a few years and see if I've absorbed anything else that might help me to either appreciate or understand the seedier aspects a bit better.

In the meantime, I'm encouraged to delve deeper into Mum Jokmok's career and I'd encourage others to do the same.  Chances are that if you have any familiarity of Thai movies, you've probably heard of The Bodyguard even if you haven't watched it already, so consider my sentiment as being directed toward the rest of us ignorant white people.

If you hurry, you can watch The Bodyguard on Netflix streaming right now, although it will expire on June 1.  I suspect this is one of those cases where it's only going to be down for a few months while they cycle through their content, so if you miss it this time, maybe just try again around Labor Day.