Following his breakout display in Ong-Bak (2003), Thai martial artist Tony Jaa was widely tipped as the ‘next big thing’ in action cinema. With his oddly harmonious mix of lethal Muay Thai moves and endearingly naive demeanor, Jaa was expected to rival such death-defying performers as Jackie Chan and Jet Li on the international stage; instead, he found his career falling victim to restrictive local contracts that prevented him from working outside Thailand’s studio system and extended sojourns to Buddhist monasteries to seek spiritual renewal. Setbacks aside, Jaa has maintained a loyal fan base that has followed him through the rest of the Ong-Bak trilogy (2008/2010) and Tom Yum Goong adventures (2005/2013) but the English-language action cinema to which he was expected to transition has changed considerably in the past decade. With major releases now relying on brand awareness and special effects rather than star power, Jaa’s first Hollywood role has come as part of the ensemble of blockbuster franchise entry Furious 7 (2015) while receiving star billing for the low-budget Skin Trade, which is receiving a limited theatrical run but is really aimed at the DTV/VOD market.
For their English-language showcases, Chan and Li did the ‘fish out of water scenario’ in their respective Hollywood studio vehicles Rush Hour (1998) and Romeo Must Die (2000), but Skin Trade is an independent venture, so it finds Jaa in home territory where the backers can get more production value on the screen. In contrast to his usual villager role, Jaa is here playing Bangkok cop Tony Vitayakul, who is waging a war on human trafficking with assistance from his girlfriend Min (Celina Jade) who works undercover in a nightclub owned by Serbian mobster Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman). The villainous Dragovic is also the target of New Jersey detective Nick Cassidy (Dolph Lundgren) who learns of a shipment delivery at the docks and arrests the trafficker following a shoot-out that finds Cassidy killing Dragovic’s son in self-defense. Once out on bail, Dragovic flees to Cambodia and retaliates by having the detective’s family wiped out, although Cassidy survives and vows vengeance. On arrival in Bangkok, Cassidy is pursued by Vitayakul, who is acting on misleading information that the detective has gone rogue, but the two crusaders for justice eventually team up to bring down Dragovic’s operation.
Jaa’s adoption of an urban screen identity has mixed results: his compact figure looks good in a suit or a leather jacket and he nicely balances professional duties with traditional values when apologizing for bumping into bystanders while chasing after his co-star. However, it’s odd to see him leaping around with a shotgun in so many of the action scenes and he struggles to sell kiss-off lines like “And you will rot in Hell” with a stilted English delivery. When he does get opportunities to show off his trademark skills, director Ekachai Uekrongtham often succumbs to the trend for fast editing which reduces Jaa’s technique to a blur of motion, or has him being outmaneuvered by the hulking Lundgren. In a classic example of action movie implausibility, Cassidy lands in Bangkok still recovering from the attempt on his life, presumably suffering from jetlag and lacking any knowledge of the city, yet somehow manages to evade a nimble native like Vitayakul.
For a DTV title, Skin Trade exhibits a rare seriousness as the creative participants evidently feel a need to raise awareness of human slavery, yet are simultaneously in thrall to the bone-breaking expectations of the action audience. It aims to be a classier proposition than rival titles in its budget range and the cast is filled out with high caliber supporting players who are nonetheless stuck with stock roles: Perlman as a one-note embodiment of snarling evil; Peter Weller as a no-nonsense New Jersey police captain; and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as a corrupt Cambodian senator. When Dragovic arrives at the docks to discover that the women who have been trafficked have died of suffocation, we’re confronted with one of the many horrors of human trafficking, but the film is soon back in genre territory as this tragedy becomes a device to show what a nasty piece of work Dragovic is by having him shoot the ship’s captain out of frustration with losing his merchandise.
Skin Trade has none of the grace of Uekrongtham’s debut feature Beautiful Boxer (2003) with the filmmaker operating in ‘director for hire’ mode throughout. The opening stretch is especially clumsy with Uekrongtham trying to sketch the human trafficking network by cutting between Bangkok and New Jersey to show the global reach of the operation and to introduce the efforts of Cassidy and Vitayakul to stop it. As is characteristic of the DTV world, action scenes that should be big moments – Cassidy storming into a restaurant to slaughter Dragovic’s associates, then setting the establishment ablaze – feel rushed, while fight scenes such as Jaa’s showdown with genre stalwart Michael Jai White are well-executed but take place in contained or remote spaces to avoid spending too much money on locations or crowd control. Vancouver unconvincingly doubles for New Jersey and the Bangkok locations prove to be a clichéd assortment of cluttered back streets and seedy nightclubs.
To say that Skin Trade is a perfunctory DTV release that will satisfy its target audience of no-frills action fans is essentially damning with faint praise. The silver lining for Tony Jaa fans who still hold out hope that he will one day achieve global superstar status, however, is that it’s also the kind of product that exists outside mainstream conversation so it won’t be a hindrance when he launched a fully-fledged bid for international prominence.