Ever since Chow's Shaolin Soccer mixed the worlds of sports and martial arts, there's been a steady stream of Asian films following in its footsteps. Maybe not enough to speak of a hype or sub genre, but at regular intervals new titles keep popping up. Pongsuwan's Fireball is the latest to join that list, and does so with a bang.
Even though Shaolin Soccer seems to have kick-started this line of films, the concept probably links back to all that 80s sports manga and anime, portraying sports games with outrageous moves and crazy athletics. And while Fireball obviously belongs to this rather small pool of films, there are plenty of elements that set it apart from its peers.
The story is quite simple and only takes up a small portion of the film. When Tai is released from prison he finds his brother in a coma. His brother's condition is directly related to the sum needed to bail him out of prison and so he vows to uncover the truth and find vengeance for his brother's current physical state. It doesn't take too long before Tai starts frequenting the Fireball crowds and so the games begin. In between we get some relevant background information but very little is done with that besides giving the characters a motivation to participate.
The game itself is a mix of basketball, Muay Thai and street fighting. Two teams of five players meet up, the goal of the game is to make one single basket. Aside from that, anything goes. If no basket is made, the game stops when there's only one man left standing. A good excuse for Pongsuwan to put a lot more focus on the fighting aspect of the game rather than on the actual basketball. There is one scene where a more equal balance exists but the other matches are all about simultaneous one on one bouts with little eye for the ball.
Fireball's digital roots are pretty obvious when watching the film. The regular scenes look a bit pale and dull, unable to cover up the somewhat mediocre acting capabilities of some of the actors. On the other hand, going digital really paid off during the action scenes. The games are agile and vivid, raw and fast. The camera works well in the dark and smoky playgrounds setting a great mood and places you right where the action is happening.
This being a Thai film you can expect some raw stunts, and Fireball delivers. No reel of failed stunts at the end this time, though I wouldn't be surprised if some actors left with several cuts and bruises after shooting the film. Adding some extra atmosphere is the soundtrack. Only really noticeable during the more dramatic scenes but well chosen and not as cheesy as you'd expect.
Fireball has its focus straight. The dramatic elements are kept to a minimum and the film revolves around four matches and one training exercise. The bouts are quite lengthy but well choreographed and more than able to keep the juice flowing. People unable to distinguish a Thai from a Japanese might be quite confused by the agile camera work but everyone else won't have too many trouble keeping track of the court action.
The raw and unrelenting bouts are really spectacular and make this one of the best action flicks I've seen in a long time. The little drama which was added does not detract from the film and provides all the necessary context for those ready to indulge in the violent mix of Muay Thai, street brawls and basketball. Highly recommended.