Tony Jaa trades blows with Dolph Lundgren in “Skin Trade”
In order to have fight scenes, you must first have enemies, and “Skin Trade” gives Phanom “Tony Jaa” Yeerum plenty of those to deal with.
Along with roomfuls of anonymous henchmen to mow down, the “Ong-Bak” star also gets featured fights with experienced stars, something fans always clamour for. In “Skin Trade”, Jaa tangles with his co-star, action veteran Dolph Lundgren, a guy who has gone toe-to-toe with Rocky. And there’s Michael Jai White, the martial-artist general bad-you-know-what. The “Black Dynamite”. star gets a knock-down, drag-out scene with Jaa.
The story is the barest of set-ups, standard Bangkok-noir elements that make up the canon of English-language Thai productions, in which foreigner gangsters operate without impunity in Bangkok. In “Skin Trade”, it’s a sleazebag family of Serbians who are trafficking young women through their network of gentlemen’s clubs, brothels and porn studios.
But unusually for a Thai film, some of the action is filmed overseas, with Vancouver, British Columbia, standing in for Newark, New Jersey, where a police officer (Lundgren) is leading an investigation against a former Serbian war criminal and current gangland kingpin. He’s played by Hollywood character actor Ron Perlman, who luxuriates in this thick bad accent.
The opening deftly toggles back and forth between Bangkok and the Garden State. On one side of the world, Royal Thai Police special branch officer Tony twirls around a luxury hotel room full of bad guys, to rescue a farmgirl from a life as a sex slave. Meanwhile, in Newark, there’s the discovery of a shipping container full of dead women, a scene that should resonate with fans of Season 2 of “The Wire”. Officer Nick gets into a dockland shoot-out, and ends up plugging the favourite son of the Serbian mobster. He retaliates by blowing up Nick’s house with a rocket, which leaves his wife and daughter dead and Nick with a facial scar.
The action then shifts back to Thailand, where a fugitive Nick arrives to a police welcome at Suvarnabhumi airport. A dodgy carpark shootout leaves Tony’s Thai cop partner dead and makes Nick an even bigger target, thanks to dirty double dealing by White’s character.
From there, “Skin Trade” proceeds at a mostly breakneck pace, running and gunning from tin-shack riverside slums to dusty warehouses. In the melee, Lundgren grabs a dirtbike, and busts through a Chinese opera stage, while Tony pursues on foot, with his trademark acrobatic running and somersaulting through crowded market lanes.
There’s the featured fight with Lundgren, beautifully staged in a rice warehouse, and another with White. And in addition to the punch-ups, there are plenty of explosions, including a retaliatory rocket-launcher firing that brings down a helicopter.
Each actor gets their moment to shine. For Jaa, it’s a chance to try out new English-language skills. He’s always been a man of few words, but now they are cool ones like “negotiation is over” or “you will rot in hell”, best said with a menacing hiss as someone is being dangled off the ledge of a five-star hotel.
Lundgren, with a polished granite exterior, is an old softie inside, and his character is given just enough of a family life to make him someone with whom the audience can sympathise.
As the Serbian crime boss Viktor, Perlman sinks deep into that Eastern European accent, rolling off such phrases as “you have a strong heartbeat … there is a musicality to the rhythm”. The “Hellboy” star even gets to puff on one of his beloved cigars while dishing out punishment.
A handful of supporting characters also stand out. Celina Jade from TV’s “Arrow” is Tony’s girlfriend and playful sparring partner. A former sex-trafficking victim, she dons angel wings to work as an undercover informant in the Serbian club.
And “RoboCop” himself, Peter Weller, is Lundgren’s police chief back home. He gets a healthy bit of exposition to delivery, and a possibility of seeing more action in a sequel.
Even seasoned Thai character actor Sahajak “Puu” Boonthanakit gets his licks in. He’s played cops and bad guys in countless English-language productions here, but his perverted porn director this time around is especially memorable. Hopefully, he received counseling after the cameras stopped rolling.
It’s all held together thanks to director Ekachai Uekrongtham, a helmer who is known for theatre productions, such as “Chang and Eng”, about the original Siamese twins, and arthouse movies like “Pleasure Factory”, about Singapore’s Geylang red-light district. But his work on the 2003 transgender-fighter biopic “Beautiful Boxer” and his current “Muay Thai Live” stage show in Bangkok made him a natural choice to help showcase Jaa’s first headline effort as an international star. There’s no muss and no fuss, and the style is consistent, whether the action is taking place in a New Jersey police station or a bar on Sukhumvit 7/1. Framing is still and steady, allowing viewers to take in the full picture of the action and feel the impact.
Talents behind the scenes who surely aided those efforts include cinematographer Ben Nott (“Daybreakers”), veteran production designer Ek Iemchuan (“Tears of the Black Tiger” and “Ong-Bak 2″) and stunt coordinator and second-unit director Dian Hristov (“Expendables 2″).
Produced by Craig Baumgarten, Lundgren and Jaa’s Bangkok-based manager and producer Michael Selby, “Skin Trade” is a project that Lundgren helped write and has been trying to get made for around five years. It came to fruition when he met Jaa while working on a Thai film called “Ai Noon Gangnam” (“A Man Will Rise”), a project set up at Sahamongkol Film.
Much of the news about “Skin Trade” has been overshadowed by a contract dispute between Jaa and Sahamongkol, where he made “Ong-Bak”, “Tom-Yum-Goong” and the aborted “A Man Will Rise”, which went to court to try and to prevent the Thai release of “Fast and Furious 7″, Jaa’s Hollywood debut in which he has a small but memorable turn as a villain who tangles with Paul Walker.
“Skin Trade” gives Jaa a chance to prove himself as a leading man alongside Hollywood heavyweights, and he acquits himself well. Coming up next is Jaa’s Hong Kong actiondebut in “Sha Po Leng II”. But perhaps a sequel to “Skin Trade” ought to also be in the works?
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