Panna Rittikrai’s name might not immediately ring a bell, but his handiwork might be familiar to a subsection of martial-arts cinema fans. Though he had been working as an actor and director in Thailand since the early 80s, he made his bones in the 21st century as a stunt coordinator. Notably, he handled choreography duties on the 2003 actioner Ong-bak, the film that introduced noted ass-kicker and future Fast and Furious cast member Tony Jaa to the world. He would go on to not only choreograph Ong-bak‘s two sequels, but direct them as well. While Vengence of an Assassin, the final film Rittikrai worked on before succumbing to liver failure at the age of 53, is an exceptionally choreographed piece of action cinema, the direction and framework are decidedly less elegant and a lot more rote.
The movie begins strongly with an action setpiece in what appears to be a garage-cum-warehouse caked with dirt and rust. In lieu of an intro credits sequence, the film treats us the most loosely-officiated street soccer game of all time. It’s a good way to show off the agility and speed of the performers, and gives them an intriguing environment to perform in. Not only does the choreography shine through, but so does the intensity of the stunts themselves. This is the action movie ideal: focus on the physical performance. Here and elsewhere, the film’s stunt crew put themselves in harm’s way at every conceivable moments, and do very little mask or obfuscate that fact. The amount of noticeable bumps that the cast takes is staggering, culminating in an unbelievable stunt in the third act involving a man and four cars. But as impressive as the stunt work is, it is too often held back by frustrating directorial choices. Footage is slowed down and sped up to emphasize impact, when all it does it kill momentum (note: this wouldn’t be a problem if the film were attempting a Tony Scott/Michael Bay-style impressionistic smear). There’s a whole otherwise-impressive single-take sequence that bafflingly shoots star Dan Chupong solely from the knees down. But the direction is only part of the problem.
As is the case with many films of this ilk, the movie loses steam the second the plot kicks into gear, here involving B-movie stalwarts Working for the Mob, A Dark Family Secret, and Avenging the Death of Your Parents. There’s also a couple of other subplots involved that make the scant 89-minute running time of the film seem bloated. There are several ways an action movie plot can unfold; there’s the Raid method, where only the thinness veneer of a storyline is sketched out in order to hang ass-beating after ass-beating on. There’s the Raid 2 method, where if your plot gets bloated, you fold the action into it while keeping B- and C-stories to a minimum. And then there’s the Shaw Brothers/Fury Road school where narrative is integrated right into the very fabric of the action itself, whether as its own arc of as parts of the film’s overall arc. The key is contextualization and legibility of the performance; action without a framework, no matter how thrilling, tends to wilt in the mind’s eye over time, and runs the very real risk of becoming mere hollow “badassery.” This becomes especially true in the film’s late innings, where a CGI-heavy sequence involving a train and a helicopter that reminded me of Live Free or Die Hard by way of Sharknado, when its pretty clearly angling for a Mission: Impossible vibe. Sure, directing accounts for some of that discrepancy, but the main problem with it is tone. Vengeance of an Assassin‘s climax reads as cartoonish when it should come off as intense.
There are few moments in the film when the film’s style and tone are in sync, and these are the moments when the film works. Unsurprisingly, this occurs any time Rittikrai gives his stuntmen room to movie and the scenes he shoots room to breathe. There are too many wonky aspects to the film to make it stand out among the umpteen Southeast Asian martial arts film in existence, including the cream of the crop featuring members of Rittikrai’s very own stuntwork stable Muay Thai Stunt. Hell, this isn’t even the consensus-best Rittikrai/Chupong collaboration (that honour goes to 2004’s Born to Fight). But as is, despite the weak writing, uncanny CGI, and occasional fits of out-of-character cartoonishness, Vengeance of an Assassin contains ample moments of loopy, locked-in martial-arts grandeur.
Vengeance of an Assassin is currently streaming on Netflix Canada.
Directed by Panna Rittikrai; written by Panna Rittikrai; starring Dan Chupong, Kowit Wattanakul, Nantawooti Boonrapsap, Kessarin Ektawatkul, and Chatchapol Kulsiriwuthichai; 89 minutes.