It’s hard not to get excited about a Muay Thai action film where even the Press notes paint it as having no pretensions to something as intrusive as story. “Eschewing plot complexities in favour of all-out action sequences”, it reads, before going for the big sell: “Fireball combines the breakneck paced sport of basketball with the bone crushing brutality of Muay Thai fighting and mixed martial arts.”
If that doesn’t do anything for you, then you’re probably not the target audience for Fireball, a film seemingly designed by someone who thought Ong-Bak was a little too sedate and pedestrian. While that film relied on a standard hero story template – a young village man must venture into the big city for the sake of his people and fight the bad men – with leading man Tony Jaa, it showcased some of the most breathtaking action scenes ever filmed.
So does Fireball live up to its tantalising pitch of Ong-Bak meets basketball? Not really, is the short answer. And it pains me as much writing that as the wave of disappointment did when watching it. Because Fireball should, on paper, at least, work.
It has a ragbag of themes and ideas liberally borrowed from undeniably enjoyable sources that should coalesce into a satisfying whole. There’s the dystopian sport of Fireball itself, where violence and blood-letting have become the main draw, bringing to mind everything from Rollerball to Salute Of The Jugger.
There’s an identical twin brother plot, the mainstay of so many Jean Claude van Damme films (well, at least two) that it recalls the guilty pleasures this can reap. And, of course, there’s the promise of non-stop Ong Bak-style fight scenes.
But Fireball doesn’t make it count where it’s needed – on the screen. True to its word, it doesn’t waste too much time on set-up and exposition; if The West Wing introduced the art of the ‘walk ‘n’ talk’ to get through reams of dialogue by having its characters do two things at once, then Fireball goes one better. This is ‘maim ‘n’ talk’.
Need the plot? Tai (Preeti Barameeanat) returns home from prison to find his twin brother Tan in a coma, goes looking for answers, and soon finds himself recruited on to a Fireball team by a boss who mistakes him for Tan, who was put in a coma by a rival player. With everyone assuming he is Tan, Tai joins the team in order to wreak revenge on the player responsible.
It’s a good hook, and Barameeanat (a rock star in his native Thailand) does a nice line in looking blank to effectively portray a man simultaneously grieving and out for vengeance. Seagal couldn’t do it any better.
Where the film falls down is where it should hold its greatest triumph – the action scenes. The game at the centre of Fireball is a simple one: score one hoop or be the last man standing on the court. So, you’d hope the streamlined simplicity of that concept would lend itself to some terrifically exciting action. But director Thanakorn Pongsuwan muddies each and every game set piece.
A mixture of over-the-top swirly camera moves mixed with annoyingly rapid fire editing (think Michael Bay with ADD) quickly grate. As does Pongsuwan’s habit for framing most of the action in medium shots, waist up. It means we’re robbed of the splendour of watching the athleticism on show. There are snippets here and there of tremendous leaps and flying elbows, but never to the jaw-dropping extent of Ong-Bak.
It more closely resembles an 80s-style videogame beat ’em up, repeating itself ad nauseum with each new level and only adding minor new elements: a second match introduces big metal rods, a third torrential rain, and a fourth big bricks. It does throw in everything but the kitchen sink for the final battle, including hands and feet twisted round in their sockets, a throat being slowly ripped out, fingers being sliced off.
It finally begins to have a bit of grotesque fun with its concept. But overall it’s not engaging enough on a visceral level, with none of the brutal grace of Jaa, nor any of the deft comic touches that marked Ong-Bak as much more than a simple action film.
By setting up some back-story for Tai’s team-mates (one’s trying to save his family from being evicted, another to support his pregnant girlfriend, another … err … trying to kiss a prostitute on the lips), it generates more empathy for its characters than you’d expect. Yet, it’s hard not to feel that Fireball is a great idea in search of a good film.
And its worst crime is that misnomer of a title. There’s no fire on the ball at any time. Joey from Friends would be very upset.
Fireball is out at cinemas now.