Tony Jaa may be the face of 'Ong Bak' and 'Tom Yum Goong', but bona fide aficionados of Thai action cinema will tell you that the real star behind these international hits is Panna Rittikrai. Indeed, Rittikrai was Jaa's mentor and fight choreographer on both the aforementioned movies before graduating to taking Prachya Pinkaew's place as director of both the 'Ong Bak' sequels through Jaa's existential crisis.
If we've started our review on a somewhat sombre note, it is because 'Vengeance of an Assassin' has turned out to be Rittikrai's final work. At age 53, Rittikrai passed away earlier this year, and this film is dedicated to his loving memory. And yet even though it was never made with that intention, this gritty hard-hitting action spectacle is undeniably a befitting tribute to Rittikrai and his legacy. Co-written and directed by Rittikrai, it is an unabashed throwback to the action movies of the 80s and 90s when action was the operative word of the genre and elements such as plot and character were secondary, so much so that the good guys were unreservedly good and the bad guys were, well, bound to meet their deserved end.
Pittikrai's priorities are clear right from the thrilling opening sequence, where a bunch of mostly shirtless guys with great abs are playing a game of indoor soccer as if their lives literally depended on it. No matter that we don't yet know who is who, every kick and punch is so bone-crunchingly real that we cannot help but marvel at Rittikrai's choreography and execution. Even when that standalone sequence is finally revealed to be nothing more than a dream for our lead character Than (Nathawut Boonrubsub), the adrenaline ride is more than worth the narrative gimmick. Like we said, the plotting here isn't the film's focal point, and serves no more than as a form of connective tissue for the series of equally jaw-dropping action scenes to come.
It follows too that storytelling isn't Pittikrai's strong suite, so do be minded to forgive him for the messy way in which events unfold. For the record, the idea here is that Than and his older brother Thee (Dan Chupong) lost their parents at a young age and now looked after by their uncle (Ping Lumpraploeng). Curious at how his parents died, Thee sets out to uncover their true identities, and through an old family friend, stumbles into the underworld as an assassin for hire. His latest assignment is to kill Ploy (newcomer Nisachon Tuamsungnoen), the daughter of an influential politician; unbeknownst to him, his employer has only engaged him in order to take the fall for Ploy's assassination.
Thee goes on the run with Ploy, which puts him at odds with his employer(s); unsurprisingly, they turn out to be connected to his parents' death, thereby giving him, Than and his uncle the chance to avenge their loss (hence the title of the movie). Rittikrai and his co-writer Wisit Wachatanon try to weave a gangland thriller with power plays and double-crosses, but the needlessly convoluted setup is merely excuse to let Chupong take out a whole bunch of baddies on his own before meeting his match in the foxy "Nui" Kessarin Ektawatkul, another one of Pittikrai's protégé from his 2004 film 'Born to Fight'. It is also eventually an opportunity for Boonrubsub to showcase his moves against chief villain Chai's henchmen, in the same one-against- many style before similarly culminating in a more evenly matched mano- a-mano showdown.
Rittikrai's language of movie-making has been through the hands, legs and everyday objects that his characters use as weapons against each other, and true enough, his film only truly finds its groove after the half-hour mark when its characters finally get to speak to each other in the language Rittikrai knows best. Trust us when we say that it is well worth the wait, as Rittikrai minimises the kind of wirework that has marred Asian action cinema of late and sticks to the sort of raw unflinching violence that will undoubtedly in turn make you flinch. Against equally crude backgrounds such as garages and abandoned factories, Rittkrai lets his characters go at each other in a no holds barred manner that will see faces smashed, jaws torn open and other assorted body parts being crushed.
Oh yes, it certainly is over-the-top, in particular a typical 80s Hollywood-style sequence where Tee and Than try to rescue Ploy from on board a runaway locomotive while their uncle and Ploy's family doctor named Master Si Fu attempt to take down a helicopter from their Land Rover using machine guns and RPGs. We're not sure if the poorly done CG backgrounds while Than fights off a seemingly never-ending stream of bad guys on top of the train were intentional, but it certainly adds up to the gleefully retro feel of the sequence which could very well have come straight out of a Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone movie back in the days. You can't quite fault it for being exaggerated if you're going to enjoy the sheer nuttiness of it, just as how you'll have to accept that Than could have learnt his moves simply by watching and practising that displayed by his parents on some old videos his uncle doesn't want him to see.
This being a Rittikrai movie, you can be sure every single one of the actors can actually fight; and yet it isn't Chupong and Boonrubsub who manages to surprise us but the elderly Malaysian actor named Ooi Teik Huat who plays Master Si Fu. It is a delightful supporting role that captures both the exuberance and the energy that this B-action movie has in spades. If it's action you want, it's action you'll get in Rittikrai's latest and last, and while cynics can easily tear the movie apart for its flaws, we'd rather just indulge in its guilty pleasures and enjoy the sheer adrenaline rush it affords its audience.