In many ways “Bangkok Knockout” is the perfect film for Fantasia (or any other similarly themed genre fest), but let’s be clear: the latest from “Ong Bak 2” and “Ong Bak 3” director Panna Rittikrai is terrible in almost every conceivable technical, narrative and aesthetic category. It’s atrociously acted, with a derivative, absurd story shot with no real skill except in making sure that when two characters are speaking to each other, they are both in the frame. However, when it’s time for the fights — which are frequent, exciting and amazingly staged, Rittikrai is firmly in his element and the audience is in his hand. “Bangkok Knockout” is precisely the kind of film that needs to be watched with a vocal, appreciative Fantasia crowd cheering along with every astounding punch, flip and kick, if only to share the joy of the sequences and have somebody to ride out the tedium of everything else in between.
The plot, such as it is, is pretty thin. The film opens with an audition of some kind between two remaining squads of martial arts fighters (one of which is named Fight Club. We’re not kidding). Anyway, they are on hand to try and win the dream of a lifetime: to travel to Hollywood to work with the beige-suit-wearing, Brett Ratner-look-a-like mogul Mr. Snead (Speedy Arnold). We can tell he’s a bad guy because of two things: he smokes a cigar and his name is Mr. Snead. So the aforementioned Fight Club lands the gig and soon they are out celebrating, with the booze and food flowing, and dreams of movie stardom in their eyes. But when they wake up the next morning a harsh reality sets in: they are in a derelict building in the middle of nowhere, without any means of reaching the outside world and soon they learn their horrible fate: they will have to fight their way out.
It turns out Mr. Snead isn’t a movie producer after all. No way! He actually runs a high-stakes, illegal gambling operation and this is his grandest scheme yet: the talented group of young battlers will square off against an impressive array of baddies hidden throughout the building. As extra incentive, not only have Snead and his cohorts kidnapped one of the girls of the team, they’ve also taken hostage the best fighter’s mother and brother. So yeah, it’s basically another run through “Gamer” with a touch of “The Running Man,” “Battle Royale,” and other films of that ilk (including the more recent “Arena“). Cameras are set up throughout the compound with a live feed going to a secret location (a truck conveniently located not too far away, of course) where four bettors are taking part — and they are ripped right from a sub-James Bond 1960s flick: there is the sexy Asian Lady; hip European Dude; cool Black Guy and the former Thai National who clearly doesn’t give a shit about some white guy using his people as pegs in a game.
It’s not really explained how Snead comes up with the odds, and his determination of when a fight is over is pretty random and doesn’t make much sense, but overthinking the plot will probably hurt your brain. Instead, just be patient because after the (overlong) first act wraps up, you will be treated to one breathtaking fight after another. To describe them would be inadequate but some of the highlights include a cage match between two sets of guys; a jaw-dropping chase on a structure hanging high off the top of a building; a fight between people on opposites side of a flowing sheet of water and the best of the bunch, a unbelievable sequence underneath a moving eighteen-wheeler. But not content just to have fists and feet flying, Rittikrai keeps raising the stakes including one baddie who never gets out of his “Death Race“-style car and is fine with just trying to run people over; a giant guy in the mold of Michael Myers or Jason, who wields nothing but a massive axe and an inability to get knocked over, and oh yeah, a team of guys on dirt bikes. There is no doubt Rittikrai knows how to stage a fight and create a spectacle, and while he’s definitely served by these guys being some wickedly skilled martial artists, the director shows real flair for movement and camera position, allowing us to feel right in the midst of the action while being able to see every move from start to finish. There are no quick cuts here.
But unfortunately, Rittikrai’s talent and passion doesn’t extend to the rest of the movie. Running just under two hours, the already barely there story wheezes long before the resolution arises, and last act twist revealing a major betrayal is both completely predictable and not at all shocking. Worse, the attempts to inject humor in the film — mostly in the shape of a cowardly, gay, Elton John-esque stump of a man who accidentally finds himself caught up with dudes in Fight Club — fall dizzyingly flat, as do most of the emotional beats from a cast of what are clearly non-actors. The endeavor is not helped by a script that makes no sense and a director who is more at home watching dudes fly through the air inflicting savage beatings on each other than communicating narrative information.
But for its endless list of shortcomings, we can’t deny that the screening was fun. The fights really are that good and this is exactly the kind of movie 3 AM on a Friday night was made for (preferably slightly buzzed). But this isn’t a future cult classic, or a hidden gem of any kind — just some well-thought-out fights placed in an afterthought of a movie. Fight scenes: [B+] The movie: [D]