In a process that began in the '90s and accelerated over the past few years, continental Asian cinema began to transcend its borders. Hong Kong is the most notable example, but countries like Korea and India have broken into the Western film and video market as well. Previously Japan was the sole source of respected Asian cinema, but things have changed. It's difficult to turn a corner in your local video mega-mart without tripping over some film that either originated or pays homage to the pictures of the East. Most recently Thailand has been getting some attention, and to our way of thinking they have just taken the best step to get international attention. They made a giant monster movie, Garuda.
A prologue explains that in ancient times powerful bird-deities ruled the land. One was more aggressive than his brethren, and he began killing his fellow birdmen. This one deity -- Garuda, for our purposes -- was imprisoned and his kind left the land.
Centuries later we see the India/Pakistan border in 1975 as Dr. Pierre, a French archaeologist, investigates cave. Just as he finds something very significant, however, war breaks out and the Pakistani army bombs his dig. (What for? Target practice? To calibrate their sights? They really hate Indian Jones rip-offs?) Pierre survives, though his assistant Rashid is buried beneath a rockslide. While pondering the one object he managed to salvage from the site, a fossilized claw, Pierre opines, "Rashid, at least you didnt die in vain." Whether Rashid and his family would agree with this assessment is not explored.
"Twinkies are not a mineral!"
Fast-forward to Bangkok, 2005. Leena (Sarah Leigh), Dr. Pierres half-Thai daughter, asks the Thai government for permission to work certain excavations in Thailand in order to prove her father's theories that theropod dinosaurs evolved into a race of bird-people unknown to science but possibly referenced in Thai mythology. The government rejects her request, telling her that a "half-caste" like herself could never have a valid perspective on Thai history or religion. At first we wondered what her Starbucks coffee order could possibly have to do with her archaeological skills, but we later came to understand that this was a racial slur.
Later Leena and her paleontologist friend Tim (Canadian actor Dan Fraser, though his character is probably American) are discreetly asked by the government to have a look at something that was found during the construction of a deep subway line under Bangkok. If you're wondering why it is that the racist Thai government is suddenly interested in the opinions of two foreigners, you're in good company.
Secondhand smoke can
Leena and Tim travel to the subway site with a Special Forces unit led by Col. Tan Toschai (Sornram Theppitak). They are shown a large bird-like skull that was found at the site, and then escorted to a large stone that stopped the subway drilling. Leena and Tim determine that there is a cave behind the boulder, so the soldiers blow it up, taking care to make it look as cool as possible. On the other side they find fossilized trees, one of which seems to have a creature embedded in it. Then, rather than consulting Leena and Tim for their expertise, the soldiers lock the two scientists in a boiler room in the abandoned subway complex. The two soon escape, and in the commotion the creature in the tree gets zapped with electricity. Tim is recaptured and locked in the boiler room again, but Leena escapes and the soldiers have to look for her. In the mean time the creature has awoken and is revealed to be Garuda, a 15-foot tall bird-person.
While keeping an eye on Tim, one of the soldiers reveals that the Special Forces unit Toschai heads exists solely to fight spirits, or supernatural monsters. Theyve apparently never seen anything like Garuda before, but in a flashback we learn that Toschai once fought a naga, or mammoth snake. Does this contribute to the story as a whole? Sort of. Does it look cool as hell? Of course!
With Leena on the loose, Col. Toschai and his men have to look for her. While they do that Garuda escapes the from its tree prison and proceeds to kill anybody it can find. Garuda also inadvertently frees Tim from the boiler room. Toschai and his men catch up with Leena in a large cavern (probably an unfinished subway station), but Garuda is hiding in the rafters and attacks.
Here Garuda introduces what has to be one of the least welcome cliché of recent sci-fi/action movies. Toschai and his team have been trained specifically to combat supernatural menaces, yet when Garuda attacks any discipline they may have had instantly breaks down and all they do is shoot in random directions, and occasionally even hit each other. This particular cliché is probably due to the enormous influence of Aliens (1986), in which the Colonial Marines were actually jaded about the possibility that they might have to fight aliens on LV-426 (Is this going to be a standup fight, sir, or another bughunt?), but once they came under attack they just fell apart. Nearly twenty years later these movie soldiers have nothing new to contribute to the genre, and no amount of Matrix (1999) inspired special effects and editing can save them.
Garuda kills several soldiers, and is about to kill Leena when the scientist scrapes the claw her father found back in 1975 along the concrete floor. The scraping sound the claw makes sounds like Garudas cry, and the monster is distracted and flies off. Leena tries to convince Toschai that Garuda is just acting like a scared animal, but he isnt buying it.
Back in the cavern where Garuda was imprisoned the Special Forces have set a trap involving anti-personal mines for the monster, but Leena ends up stepping on a tripwire just as Garuda arrives. Toschai is able to save her, but the bombs go off, and the entire complex floods. Leena and Toschai are washed into the active part of the subway system. (We were wondering where the movie was going to find more cannon fodder.) So is Tim, who has spent the entire movie so far imprisoned, hiding, or blundering. Being swept down subway tunnels by a wall of raging water hasnt affected Tim much; he's still wearing his glasses.
You just know this guy is going
to regret saying that.
Stupid ironic deaths...
The threesome find a working subway station, and manage to trade a quick comedy scene with a particularly heinous comic relief character. The comic relief actor is so out-of-place in the movie that he screams "celebrity cameo," and we profess to feeling no sorrow when Garuda shows up and paints the subway walls with his blood. Leena, Toschai, and Tim run from Garuda and are saved by the back-up team to Toschai's team, which really begs the question: how many supernatural monsters there are in Thailand? Our heroes make it to the surface and Garuda makes bird food out of the other soldiers. The Thai military surrounds the train station, but Garuda breaks through the ground behind their lines and eats Tim. Garuda then flies off and causes chaos all over Bangkok, throwing cars and breaking windows. Now it's up to Leena and Toschai to formulate a plan to kill the monster.
It may seem like we've spoiled the entire plot for you, but if you've been paying attention, you have probably realized that there's not much to spoil. Garuda is a by-the-numbers monster-vs-humans rumble with a lot of CGI and a watermelon-sized chip of bigotry on its shoulders. It's this last attribute that's most memorable. Leena is constantly preaching tolerance towards other people. However, she is always wrong whenever she advances a theory about Garuda, and she's always wrong because she's trying to prove her French father's theories. In other words, being half-Thai is a disability. Meanwhile the only completely non-Thai character is Tim, who is cowardly and selfish throughout the film. It's also tough to shake the feeling that Toschai gets to be Leena's love interest solely because he's Thai, mostly due to Theppitak's failure to provide any characterization to explain why Leena might be interested in him. Beyond the main characters, supporting characters are constantly saying disparaging things about "farangs" (Caucasians) and "Yankees." It's generally a bleak view of Thai attitudes, and we doubt it will play well outside that country.
"What? Behind me?
Why would I look behind me?"
For those viewers hungry for good old-fashioned romp-n-stomp destruction, however, Garuda may well be what you crave. The monster design is certainly unusual enough, especially if you haven't read many comic books, and he proves surprisingly difficult to kill for a creature with bones light enough to allow flight. (Let's just say that if you're a fan of the "villain thought dead returns" gag, you're going to love Garuda.) At fifteen feet tall the title creature technically qualifies as a giant monster, but don't be surprised when he does more damage to the city's inhabitants than to the city itself.