Bold statement of the month: Thailand — Prachya Pinkaew in particular — is the reigning champ of action cinema. The rest of the world, it would appear, is still trying to catch up. What makes this country’s ballsy brand of no-holds-barred, anything goes martial arts mayhem so impossibly intense, you ask? It has, I believe, a lot to do with the cast and crew’s willingness to take the brutal on-screen antics one step beyond what everyone else is doing at the moment. From full contact fight sequences to the implementation of several death-defying stunts, Thai cinema is leaving its gleefully bloody mark all over the genre, effectively spoiling yours truly on run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare in the process. After all, who wants to watch an overpaid batch of Hollywood lightweights pretend to fall several stories from the top of a building when you can watch a dedicated group of talented individuals actually perform these feats of daring do right before your very eyes? That’s what I thought.
The Ong Bak director’s latest cinematic marvel Chocolate is certainly a dazzling display of physical prowess, though it does leave a little to be desired in terms of story, characterization, and, sadly, execution. That’s not to say the film is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, mind you, but it’s definitely an ultra shallow experience that may cause those seeking depth and development to beat their tiny fists against their all-region DVD player in complete and utter dismay. However, when approached as a breezy, easy-to-swallow action flick, Chocolate delivers the goods in a way few productions can. Expecting anything more, I’m afraid, is only going to irritate that patch of sensitive skin on the back of your oh-so tender neck.
The film stars up-and-coming action icon Yanin Vismitananda (aka Jeeja Yanin) as Zen, an autistic girl whose mother is suffering from a deadly cluster of soul-sucking cancer. With little funds available to pay for medicine and hospitalization, it would appear that the sickly woman’s days are numbered, a fact which causes Zen to make a life-altering decision. Using Tony Jaa movies as a makeshift mentor in the bone-snapping ways of Muay Thai, Zen and her tubby friend venture out to collect a few of her mother’s old debts in hopes they’ll find enough cash to save the dying lady’s life. However, when several scabby old wounds are picked, kicked, and accidentally brought to the surface, Zen will come face-to-face with a storied past she never knew existed.
Once Chocolate gets rolling, it rarely lets up. Problem is, you’ll have to wait nearly 30 minutes for anything remotely interesting to happen. After the feet and elbows and knees start knocking people around the set like so many second-hand rag dolls, all is right with the world. Unfortunately, you’ll have to sit through a mountain of needless exposition that could’ve been easily condensed into a breezy 10 to 15 minute segment without skimping on the quasi-emotional impact. Had Pinkaew paid more attention to his script, its inhabitants, and the world in which they live, perhaps the picture wouldn’t feel quite as empty as it currently does. Many will take issue with the film’s weak storyline, and I honestly can’t blame them. There’s really nothing happening beneath the hood.
In my vastly hypocritical nature, I honestly don’t care about such trivial elements as character development and skillfully written plot lines when it comes to martial arts flicks. All I need is excellent choreography, extended sequences of non-stop action, and a finale that causes my genitals to tighten, twist, and retract into my pasty little body. Thankfully, Chocolate doesn’t hold anything back in terms of high-quality, over-the-top action-oriented theatrics. There are numerous set pieces to visually consume, including an enjoyable showdown inside an enormous freezer littered with giant blocks of ice, a sizzling confrontation within a butcher shop teeming with enormous flies, and a final reel display of stylized fisticuffs that mirrors the Crazy 88 battle at the tail end of Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Kill Bill Vol. 1.
To be fair, there are a number of dodgy post-production gimmicks that have been utilized to bring the more complicated stunts to life, but for the most part, everything you see on-screen is actually taking place. People fall from great heights to the cold hard ground below, limbs are bruised and battered, faces are pummeled and punished — it’s truly a sight to behold. Yanin Vismitananda, the film’s big bright shining star, is the gel that violently holds these wonky pieces together. There’s a fluidity to her stable of nifty movements, a natural grace to her fights that often appear to be second nature. She has the uncanny ease of Brotherhood of the Wolf co-star Mark Dacascos, complete with a set of long, nimble legs and a confidence that saturates every single showdown. I’ll be very surprised if she doesn’t become an international superstar within the next few years.
Despite my gushing love for Chocolate, its star, and the many impossibly amazing traits it has working in its favor, the picture almost seems like a massive step backwards for Prachya Pinkaew and his crew of dedicated stuntmen. It’s not as accomplished as either Tom Yum Goong or Ong Bak, especially in terms of story and execution. When compared to other like-minded efforts from around the world, however, it’s still light years beyond what everyone else is attempting. The film’s climatic showdown definitely cements its place in the annals of cinematic history, but you’ll have to wade through a lot of silliness to get to the tender morsel of Muay Thai goodness at the heart of the production. Chocolate is an extremely tasty nugget of martial arts madness, but it’s really nothing more than empty calories.
Make of that what you will.