Spirited Killer (Thailand, 1994)

Although Spirited Killer (also known as Spirited Warrior) stars Thai action star Panna Rittikrai, it was given a fairly wide release in the UK and the US due to the presence of a certain Tony Jaa, whose star was on the rise (prior to running away to a monastery because he’d realised how bad Ong Bak 3 was going to be – luckily, he came back). Far from being a vehicle for Jaa – he’s on screen for barely ten minutes – Spirited Killer showcases some tidy action from Rittikrai as a mute, single-minded Terminator-like killer.

Plot-wise Spirited Killer is as thin as the thinnest of thinly plotted kung-fu flicks: a potion created by the a local witch doctor manages to poison those who drink it, so a bunch of villagers respond by murdering him. As you do. Five years later, a mysterious figure appears in middle of the forest and slaughters anyone he meets – so naturally the villagers would like to stop him before he arrives where they live. This might be sooner than they’d hoped too, because the killer can apparently run very very fast.

See – even with the incredible ‘fast running’ stuff, this is a pretty thin idea. However, instead of working against the film it’s this simplicity which actually makes for its appeal. Stripping down to the basics of a mad, hard-as-nails killer who kicks the crap out of anyone who gets in his way who has to be stopped, it allows for plenty of low budget fight action in the middle of a forest.

As luck would have it, our loony Killer is played by Rittikrai, the actor, director, writer and martial arts choreographer who, along with Prachya Pinkaew, has been responsible in some way for most of the major Thai action films that have broken out into the worldwide market in recent years – including those of the previously mentioned Jaa as well as the films of Yanin Vismitananda (Chocolate, 2005). Years before Jaa emerged as a star in the Rittikrai-choreographed Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003), Rittakrai had starred in dozens of incredibly popular low budget action films, so this means that we get to see some well-honed action of the fists and feet variety. Rittikrai’s intensity in the role is fantastic.  His scowls burn off the screen, making him pretty successful in the ‘menacing’ department. So really, forget the Terminator, Rittikrai would put him down with one evil look. And then probably kick and punch him a few times, or stab him with a sword for good measure…

Outside of our psycho lead, the rest of the cast of characters of Spirited Killer consist of a healthy mix of villagers, muggers and Japanese students (!) who are either unlucky enough to cross the path of the glaring-eyed murderer, or stupid enough to think that they can serve up some justice of their own. It’s somewhere in the middle of this lot that a certain Mr. Jaa makes his appearance, about midway through the film. The fight between Rittikrai and Jaa is actually the highlight of the film – it’s an extended fight lasting a few minutes (as opposed to being just a couple of kicks and punches) and includes a fair share of the famous ‘run away scared’ technique on Jaa’s part. Don’t expect to see the Muay Thai fighting style here – this is more like straightforward old school martial arts fighting, a back-and-forth of kicking and punching. For Jaa die-hards, it’s of limited interest, although it’s certainly worth a look.

So Spirited Killer is good fun – at least for its first hour, after which it begins to outstay its welcome. The simple but effective cinematography makes the best of its ‘jungle’ backdrop (as well as helping to make Panna Rittikrai look mean and scary) but even this can only go on for so long before becoming tiresome and you wish they’d introduce a warehouse. Or some elephants. As fun as the action is you do begin to feel like you’ve seen it all before, but at only eighty-five minutes it’s certainly not over-long.

If I haven’t underlined it enough, Spirited Killer is a simple action film, akin to no-budget seventies Hong Kong martial arts films. There’s something very appealing about its simple-but-effective style, but beware that even this only has limited interest. Don’t watch Spirited Killer purely for Tony Jaa because you’ll be disappointed.  Instead, watch it because Panna Rittikrai is a class act with real intensity who gets to kill a lot of people and run really fast!

Martin Cleary likes egg-custard pies, has a caffeine habit and is tall. He also writes words for New Korean Cinema and has mumbled his way through episodes on ‘What’s Korean Cinema?’ for the Podcast On Fire Network.