Ever since the international successes of Prachya Pinkaew‘s "Ong-Bak" and "Tom Yum Goong" with Tony Jaa, the U.S. has been flooded by a lot of action films from Thailand. Most recently, are Jaa's mediocre earliest films such as "Battle Warrior" and "Spirited Killer" just to capitalize on the Muay Thai magic in movies. Prachya Pinkaew, now returns with a martial arts film that will be categorized in the "girls who kick butt" genre; "CHOCOLATE" is a film full of hard-hitting fights and amazing stunts. Newcomer Jeeja Yanin (sometimes credited as Yanin Vismitananda) has the skills to be dubbed the "female Tony Jaa"--after all, it is much easier to teach a martial artist to act than to teach an actor to do martial arts.
An autistic teenager named Zen (Jeeja Yanin) is a child born of an affair between a top-ranking Yakuza officer named Masashi (Abe Hiroshi) and a Thai woman (who was also a mistress of a Thai crime lord) named Zin (pretty Ammara Siripong). The Thai gang boss (played by Pongpat Wachirabunjong) doesn't appreciate the fact that the Yakuza is muscling into his turf and Masashi was forced to return to Japan and Zin is left to raise Zen by herself. Growing up, Zen discovers that she has an uncanny photographic memory, and she can imitate complex martial arts moves by watching the students in the Muay Thai school next door and by watching Tony Jaa and Bruce Lee's films.
As fate would have it, Zin becomes stricken with cancer and she needs money to pay for her medical needs. Aided by childhood friend, Moom (Taphon Phopwandee) they intend to capitalize on her quick reflexes and incredible agility in a sidewalk show and by collecting debts that a lot of folks owe her mother. Little do they know that the past is closing in on them and it will lead to a final resolution to the events that led to her birth.
Martial Arts films usually have a simple plot and "Chocolate" (labeled after Zen's favorite vice) is no different. The problems with the film is that the plot may be a little overreaching and seems a little silly. A lot of its elements are underdeveloped and the script is a little scattered. The film's main premise of an autistic teenager with amazing fighting skills requires a very large suspension of disbelief; I don't care how good your reflexes are or if you have a photographic memory, one can learn the moves but one cannot fully gain the fighting "savvy" or the experience of rolling or taking a punch. The film gets a little absurd, the villains are a bit comical; the Thai Boss' second in command is a transsexual with his own gang of transsexuals. I think the plot would have done better without these elements, that it should have developed its more human side with a lot of emotion since it does have the potential to do so.
The plot's hollow storyline aside, "Chocolate" is a visual mayhem of violence. Zen's opponents go from easy to medium, from hard to "VERY HARD"--it's almost like a video game. Jeeja has the necessary skills and I was very impressed with her athletic abilities. For a film like this, the action scenes need to be able to steal the show, and it does. The film is a stunt show, the fights are long and hard-hitting, they also get more violent as the film progresses; it displays Jeeja's martial arts skills to efficiency. Highlights include a very nifty meat market battle and the film's showstopper, the very stunt-ridden fights on the side of a building. Jeeja performed most of her stunts without wires, with absolutely NO stunt doubles and with this, I am very impressed. With the film's end credits, you'll see her sustain very real injuries when performing some of the stunts. Jeeja's performance acting-wise is decent for a newcomer, but it is clear that she needs to attend a few acting workshops.
The director also gives subtle tributes to Bruce Lee classics such as "The Big Boss" (the ice factory scene) and "Fist of Fury". There is also a cool animated "dream" sequence very similar to "Party 7" (which may also be a hint of Kill Bill?). There is also a very weird, quirky assassin who uses the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, who also wears a negative-colored track suit (Black suit with white stripes) as a tribute to Bruce Lee's "Game of Death". The near-climactic encounter also occurs in a setting very similar to "Kill Bill", and I found it very curious as to why Thai mobsters would use samurai swords.
Despite all the very cool fisticuffs, the film's dark tones, the film does seem a little too hollow. The film became overly ambitious, it's as if it couldn't decide whether to be dramatic or comical. However, I do hope to see more of Jeeja Yanin, she may not be as charismatic as Michelle Yeoh or Cynthia Khan, but hey, the actress is still young and she's still developing. The film may not be as bone-crushing as "Ong-Bak" or "Flashpoint"; "Chocolate" isn't as impressive as the best of Bruce Lee, Jet Li or Jackie Chan action films, but it is a satisfying enough martial arts film. The film is simply a stunt show, made to showcase Jeeja's amazing skills and fortitude--now, if she just goes to an acting workshop, she'll be awesome!
Recommended for action junkies and a good rental for everybody else. [3 ½ -Stars]
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