Mercury Man

Here’s an interesting factoid for you: every year this century, with the exception of 2001, a superhero movie has been in the top ten highest grossing US films of the year. Some years have had more than one – 2008 had three. Not surprising then that other filmmaking nations are trying to get their hands on those fat comic-book dollars (or in this case, baht). Thailand’s film industry is currently enjoying considerable worldwide success on the back of Tony Jaa’s martial arts movies, and has made some forays into this area such as 2006’s Mercury Man. The film was produced Prachya Pinkaew, director of Ong Bak and Chocolate, with action choreography from his long-time collaborator Panna Rittikrai. It was their attempt to cash in on the Hollywood comic-book boom, specifically Spider-Man. Don’t worry if you don’t pick up on this immediately, as the filmmakers (completed by director Bhandit Thongdee, The Unborn) helpfully add extras in Spider-Man T-shirts and jokey graffiti shout-outs to the Marvel movies, not to mention the look and abilities of the hero.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in. We start off in Cambodia, where a kid with super powers (Pumipan Klinlord) is street hustling, using his telekenetic abilities to win bets. Some random thugs appear and capture him in spite of his abilities. OK, so this part has very little to do with Spider-Man, but is more in keeping with the X-Men movies. Then it’s off to Tibet, where some other random thugs led by a badass fighting female named Aleena (Metinee Kingpayome, Bullet Wives) steal a sacred object from a Buddhist temple.

The globetrotting comes to an end in Bangkok, as we finally meet the hero of the piece. Depending on the translation you’re watching his name is Chan or Sharn (Wasan Khantaau), a damn-the-rules, on-the-edge, screw-those-pencil-pushers-in-City-Hall… fireman. Hey, he may not do everything by the book, but he gets results, dammit! While taking part in the most elaborate and realistic-looking rescue simulation ever mounted, Chan saves a baby. But because he did it after being told not to he’s yelled at by the chief (who actually says “with great power comes great responsibility” in the translation I saw), and put in charge of the equipment room.

Aleena works for a terrorist leader, Osama bin Ali (Arnon Saisangchan a.k.a. Phu Blackhead, singer for Thai rock band Blackhead). He’s in jail in Bangkok, but is about to be moved to the USA. Aleena and her team stage a rescue, and in the melee a fire breaks out. Chan tags along with the fire crew long enough to see Osama’s escape. Since Chan is adept at kickboxing he tries to slow the villains down, but gets stabbed with Osama’s mysterious amulet. It turns into a weird blob of liquid metal and pours itself into the wound. The unconscious Chan has a strange dream sequence where he meets a monk (Phairoat Permchalad), who tells him he has been chosen by the talisman, known as the Sun Amulet.

Osama and his terrorist cronies are the ones who kidnapped the telekenetic kid, and also stole the other talisman (the Moon Amulet) from the Tibetan temple. According to Osama’s science guy Chu (Takato Kitamoto), when combined these amulets will have the power of an atomic bomb. Of course this fails to explain why the bad guys don’t simply use an actual atom bomb, since we’re often told how easy it is for Jihadists to get their hands on such things. In order to get the Sun Amulet back, some henchmen break into Chan’s apartment and rough up his Mum (Darunee Khrittabhunyalai). That’s OK, because Purima, the cute Tibetan guardian of the Moon Amulet (Jinvipa Kheawkunya) arrives to help fight them off. Also, Chan’s transgendered formerly-brother-now-sister Grace (Parinya Kiatbusaba) is another Muay Thai expert.

Once the thugs are defeated, Purima explains to Chan that the Sun Amulet is a mystical meteorite that makes him as invulnerable as metal, as well as giving him power over other metal objects. He can use this force to pull himself through the air, almost as if, oh, as if swinging from, let’s say some kind of web. Like a man who possesses some of the characteristics of a spider, perhaps. Anyway, the amulet also causes Chan to get hotter as he becomes excited, leading to the rather funny scene where he sets fire to his clothes while reading Penthouse. With this in mind, he asks Grace (a fashion designer) to make him a costume using some flame-retardant fabric from the fire station.

After a short meditation montage where Purima teaches Chan to control his powers, the terrorists show up once more and capture Mum and Grace. Since Purina doesn’t know where the bad guys are, Chan kills time by stopping crimes as Mercury Man. His first attempt takes place on Bangkok’s huge Rama IX Bridge, in a scene very similar to one which might, for example, have taken place on the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s assuming New York ever had any costumed heroes who wore a skin-tight costume and swung around on some sort of webbing (have I killed this joke yet, or is it still twitching?). The next day, the TV news is awash with sightings of the heroic stranger. Everyone wants to know who he is, and at least one TV pundit thinks he’s probably Tony Jaa.

Purima has a magic compass that can detect holy objects, but for some reason it hasn’t been working. It suddenly comes to life, allowing her and Chan to find the villains’ lair. Unfortunately most of the terrorists have already left, taking the child and Mum with them. Grace is left behind to deliver a message: if Chan wants to see his mother again, he will have to deliver the Sun Amulet to them at the local seaport. In a rather nice touch, the bad guys immediately figured out the guy with the sudden superpowers must be Chan. Through some bizarre reasoning I couldn’t quite grasp even after watching the scene three times, they surmise that electricity must be Chan’s Achilles heel. They lure him to a nightclub outfitted with some sort of ‘ionic power’ generator that negates his powers, but fortunately Chan is still a Muay Thai expert.

Chan goes to the rendezvous with the bad guys and is taken prisoner. In classic villain mode, Osama lays out his entire plan: there’s an American ship docked at the Thai naval base, and it’s secretly carrying illegal chemical weapons to be used on the insurgents in Iraq. Wow, I’m no fan of the last decade’s worth of US foreign policy either, but even I can concede this is a trifle over the top. But then the filmmakers’ grasp of middle-eastern politics borders on science fiction. Osama tells Chan his people only wanted to live in peace with everyone, and rhetorically asks who started the war in Afghanistan (without adding anything to the effect of “except if you’re Jewish” and “the recent one, not the one where America helped us beat the Russians”).

Anyway, the big problem with blowing up the boat with a nuclear missile… hang on. If you hate America so much, wouldn’t it be better to just drop a bag of C4 onto the boat, thus releasing the deadly cargo and humiliating the Great Satan in the eyes of the World? By hitting it with a nuclear bomb you’re pretty much getting rid of the evidence, and making yourselves look like bloodthirsty douchebags at the same time. Sorry, as I was saying, the big problem is that today is Children’s Day and the Thai navy is showing a whole bunch of kids around their docked ships. It also means that the terrorists chose to attack on the second Saturday in January, trivia fans.

Realising there’s no way to get the Sun Amulet out of Chan, Osama decides the plan will work with just the Moon Amulet. Aleena is sent to place the Amulet in a missile and fire it at the American ship, but Purima is on hand to try and stop her. Meanwhile Chan (now in his Mercury man outfit) and Grace, along with Chan’s fireman friend Buay (Attakorn Suwannaraj), fight to rescue Mom and the kid. What, you’d forgotten about him? Apparently so had the screenwriters. I think the idea is his telekenesis has been hiding the base from outside detection by radar, Purima’s amulet etc. Once he’s rescued, the Thai navy spot the missile heading for the US ship. Yes, Aleena managed to get the Moon Amulet into the missile and fire it, before jabbing herself in the leg with the Moon Amulet which she’d accidentally dropped… in the… fight…

Nope, sorry, can’t help you on this one. She puts something in the rocket for sure. Maybe the bad guys had more than one Moon Amulet? Who knows? Anyway, the Amulet turns Aleena into a Jack Frost-looking character that uses her ice powers for the big final throwdown with Mercury Man. Meanwhile, wacky hijinks occur as the Thai navy’s most bumbling gunner attempts to bring down the missile with an old-style anti-aircraft gun.

It’s probably unfair to judge Mercury Man on the same criteria as a Hollywood superhero movie. Clearly the filmmakers had only a fraction of the budget of something like Daredevil, let alone The Dark Knight. What they accomplish at this level is decent, if not breathtaking. OK, so every time Mercury Man becomes a CGI double it looks horrible. But it’s not that much worse than the dreadful CG stand-ins from Blade II or The Matrix Reloaded. And since Panna Rittikrai and his stunt team are on hand, the film can use that CG double sparingly. Most of the time the superfeats are accomplished with old-fashioned wirework, though this means that the action is a bit of a mixed bag. To me, Panna’s strength as a choreographer is in his use of Muay Thai moves in his fight scenes. The more Yuen Woo-ping-style wirework and kung fu on display here seems like old hat compared to Panna’s best work. It’s well done for sure, but the film is definitely at its best when the occasional Tony Jaa flying elbow strike makes an appearance.

The other issue with the fight scenes is due to the cast rather than Panna’s choreography. Since these are mostly actors rather than martial artists, that awful Hollywood close-up, fast-cut shaky-cam style is used to cover up deficiencies in technique and obvious stunt doubles. Fortunately, most of the action sees Mercury Man in full costume, when one of Wasan Khantaau’s four stunt doubles can take over. Inevitably therefore, the best scenes are the big climax and the scene in the nightclub.

I said most of the cast weren’t martial artists. The exception is Parinya Kiatbusaba, a.k.a. Nong Toom, a former Muay Thai champion and probably the most famous kathoey (or ‘ladyboy’) in Thailand’s history. Nong fought as a male, though sporting makeup and feminine hair, in order to support her poor family and raise money for a sex change operation. A movie of her life, Beautiful Boxer, was released in 2003. Not surprisingly, Nong’s brief fight scenes are pretty cool, and she gets to show off the best Muay Thai in the film. I’m fascinated by how casually transgendered actors are incorporated into Thai movies, but in the few I’ve seen they always seem to be cast as villains. It was great to see Nong redressing the balance; she’s a strong screen presence and no worse an actor than many other martial artist-turned-movie stars. Heck, I’d have liked the movie a lot more if she’d been Mercury Man. Sorry, Woman.

That’s because the rest of the cast are exceedingly bland. Arnon Saisangchan’s terrorist leader is very poor, and he mangles all of his English dialogue. The filmmakers would have been better off with New York-born model and actress Metinee ‘Look Ked’ Kingpayome as the main villain, considering she does most of the heavy lifting anyway. I honestly can’t see this making the film any more unbelievable, since we’re already expected to swallow hardline Muslims who allow a female to give orders, leave her head uncovered and do anything other than stay indoors making more hardline Muslims. Kingpayome is probably the best actor in the movie, certainly head and shoulders above Jinvipa Kheawkunya as the drippy Talisman guardian. She and Wasan Khantaau have zero chemistry, which is just as well given that the script can’t really be bothered to give them a romance beyond a couple of insipid moments.

What the script does have though is exposition. I can’t recall a movie where such huge chunks of poorly-written data were dumped in single scenes. One of them even comes in the form of a computer-generated cartoon professor who explains where Amulets come from. This is unfortunate, because there are the seeds of a decent film here. OK, so the lead character’s powers are derivative in the extreme (he’s basically Magneto dressed as Venom with added Muay Thai), but I like the idea of a holy artefact from space turning someone into a superhero. Mercury Man’s origins, costume and kung fu put me in mind of Steve Wang’s live-action Guyver movies, the second of which is a ton of fun. Mercury Man, like Michelle Yeoh’s Silver Hawk, may not be a patch on the best of Hollywood’s comic book flicks. But like Silver Hawk, I’d still rather watch this again than crap like the Fantastic Four movies, Ghost Rider or Louis Leterrier’s shitty Hulk reboot.

But I’d much prefer to see a flick where Nong Toom gets super powers and kicks all kinds of transgendered ass. How about it, Thailand?

Release Year: 2006 | Country: Thailand | Starring: Wasan Khantaau, Metinee Kingpayome, Arnon Saisangchan, Jinvipa Kheawkunya, Parinya Kiatbusaba (Nong Toom), Darunee Khrittabhunyalai, Pumipan Klinlord
Screenplay: Bhandit Thongdee, Songsak Mongkolthong, Joe wannapin | Director: Bhandit Thongdee | Cinematography: Sittipong Kongtong | Music: Apollo Lab(2001) Co.,Ltd