To sum up the film: Very cool action set pieces; bloody awful story. We knew there was gonna be imense pressure for Jeeja Yanin's sophomore work to equal or surpass her debut film CHOCOLATE and, to be honest, RAGING PHOENIX carries a whiff of trying too hard. Jeeja Yanin in CHOCOLATE played a mildly autistic debt collector and so it makes sense to have her switching it up in this one. She plays Deu, one of those party girls who have too much free time on her hands. The film opens during a spectacularly bad series of moments for Deu. She gets kicked out of her rock band, gets spectacularly liquored up, and then gets abducted by a girl and by - and I guess this is the Thai sense of humor at work - a chubby transvestite. She's saved by a melancholy dude named Sanim who along the way fends off a bunch of goons on pogo stilts sporting wicked sharp blades - this, by the way, doesn't at all seem contrived. Really. Deu ends up joining Sanim's tiny band of inebriated martial artists, and these guys specialize in "Meyraiyuth," a form of drunken Muay Thai boxing which incorporates breakdancing. We learn along the way that Sanim and his friends are seeking an elusive organization of kidnappers. It's not too long before Deu picks up drunken Muay Thai boxing. In fact, it may be best to overlook the inordinately short amount of time it takes Deu to pick up impressive fighting skills. Personally, it's even more challenging for me to buy into Jeeja Yanin's pretending to be this girl who, at the start of the film, can't fight at all.
Likewise, it's best not to dwell too much on the kidnappers' target victims. It all has to do with certain women exuding a particular scent, and these women are taken so that their tears could be extracted and sold as a curative for staggering sums of money. It's all pretty "What the f---?"
Like in Tony Jaa's movies - and I wonder if we'll always be comparing JeeJa Yanin to Tony Jaa? - RAGING PHOENIX has a sketchy plot which is there solely to frame the crunching slugfests. What sort of sinks the picture is that things often get bogged down in superfluous plot exposition and forced melodrama. When no one is getting a sharp knee to the face, the pace slows downs to a snail's pace. There are also times when our girl sounds really shrill and when I was thinking that maybe she was better off in CHOCOLATE when she barely had dialogue. She's not as wooden as Tony Jaa. In fact, Jeeja does demonstrate expressiveness and personality (dug her drunken Muay Thai when she first goes off on her own). I blame a screenplay that's listless and the shoddy direction and the fact that this is a Thai martial arts film, a genre which tends to ignore trivial details like good acting and fine execution of story.
We're here strictly for the martial arts stuff, so how was that? Just when I was thinking that THE REBEL's Veronica Ngo was the new lady sheriff in town when it came to buttkicking heroines, here's that wisp of a girl Jeeja Yanin once more kneeing opponents in their painful parts. There are several fight sequences here, and the first two has our heroine taking a back seat to French-Vietnamese martial artist "Kazu" Patrick Tang.("Sanim") and his crew (comprised of members of a B-Boy band in real life). These sequences are really nifty, if unrealistic. The first fight, against the pogo stilt henchmen, demonstrates Kazu's athleticism. The second is the big drunken Muay Thai boxing showcase, and it's cool to see our guys popping and locking and breakdancing while handling their business against some more evil henchmen. The music playing in the background amps you up, too.
Jeeja Yanin gets in the act in later encounters - and her character even challenges one of Sanim's guys into a duel by the beach - but, really, it's not until the final 30 minutes that the real Jeeja Yanin comes out to play. Her brutal beat down of two formidable martial artists is an electrifying highlight. But then to top it off, she takes on the menacing female leader of the kidnappers in a rematch (her previous tussle with her, over a lattice of shaky wooden bridges, ended somewhat in a draw). The film's Big Bad is played by Roongtawan Jindasing who is a champion body builder in real life, and she looks mean enough to wipe the floor with you and me and Shaquille O'Neal (and while she's wearing a bikini bra, no less). And, in the department of "That's Really Gonna Leave A Funky Bruise," JeeJa Yanin's devastating finishing move on Jindasing will drop your jaw. Yanin does her own stunts again, and it's crazy insane to see her acrobatic moves and observe the impact her blows have. Just when I'd thought I'd seen everything Muay Thai had to offer, Yanin demonstrates a series of electrifying maneuvers. I almost don't mind the sometimes glaringly obvious wire work.
This rating thing is pretty subjective. I'm compelled to give this film 3 stars out of 5 (breaks down to 5 stars for the fighting, 1 star for the crappalicious story content). Except that if you already knew going in that the story would get the back seat treatment and you only showed up to see JeeJa Yanin pummel thugs anyway, do you then only rate this for the action bits? I dunno. I say, 3 stars.
Last thing for me. Seriously, what awful ungodly brew was in that jug that everyone had to drink to cement their team membership? It's got me curious.