Ken Tucker gives props to a true martial artist, now in theaters with ''The Protector.'' Plus: praise for a Nicole Kidman analysis, Ornette Coleman, and more

By Ken Tucker
September 25, 2006 at 12:00 PM EDT

Ken Tucker on a true martial artist: Tony Jaa

1. Tony Jaa throws an elbow into your windpipe in The Protector

Never mind Jet Li’s Fearless. Quick, before it slips out of movie theaters, forget the just criticisms of its ridiculous plot (yeah, yeah, rescuing a stolen elephant that our Thai warrior has treasured since a youth) and watch The Protector for the reason it was made: Jaa’s astounding post-Bruce Lee, post-Jackie Chan take on martial artistry, his Muay Thai flurried attack of elbows and knees (not so much fists — hands break). This, combined with his handsome deadpan, would make him an ideal candidate to become the Buster Keaton of his genre — but who will direct this true artist in a good movie? In the meantime, this will have to do…

2. David and Mary on The Amazing Race

(8-9 p.m. Sundays, CBS)

Rural, working-class people get ridiculed routinely in prime time. So if it takes this silly but exciting reality show (which is recovering from the last edition’s ”Who can buy a plane ticket to the next city before the rest of the pack?” tedium) to put at least two examples of this rare-for-TV breed on an equal plane with buff urban athletes and beauty-contest winners, I’ll be happy to watch this Kentucky coal-mining husband and wife, who met at McDonald’s, for as many weeks as they can endure.

3. Nicole Kidman is to die for in David Thomson’s Nicole Kidman


This portrait of a movie star from the constantly precise, provocative, prickly critic has been getting some harsh reviews, mostly because, as I read them, reviewers are made uncomfortable when a critic decides to combine sharp analysis with undisguised passion. Thomson’s book is filled with acute observations about the state of modern film acting and the movie business — and Kidman’s best role to date, in 1995’s To Die For, as the deviously ambitious TV personality Suzanne Stone, brings out some of the best insights from Thomson. Among them: ”The beauty of Kidman’s performance is her tremendous emphasis on cuteness, camera presence, and ‘style’ to the detriment of character or personality… There could not be a better model for the way in which vanity and self-love have obliterated critical thinking.”

4. The Best American Poetry 2006

Edited by Billy Collins; series editor David Lehman (Scribner)

Seventy-five mostly wonderful poems, including some that must be read in their entirety for full effect (such as David Yezzi’s delicately moving yet sharply funny ”The Call”). I’ll just offer the opening lines of Mark Halliday’s puckish meditation, ”Refusal to Notice Beautiful Women”:

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before.

It’s so simple: I just won’t notice.

Twenty years ago the hormones would have exploded this idea

but now I’m — now I have the wisdom of — anyway

I’ll just be like ”What? Oh, I didn’t notice. Where?

Over there? Nope, didn’t happen to see her.”

Life is going to be a lot easier. I’ll read more books;

I won’t keep looking up when someone comes into the café

because who cares? I mean,

to hell with them! They want to be so impossible?

They want to be so many versions of sublimity on two legs?

Let them go watch each other, whatever…

5. ”Song X” on Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar

(Sound Grammar)

Saxophonist Coleman takes the composition — first recorded in 1985 with Pat Metheny — and applies crushing pressure to it, getting wails, moans, and the most sublime howls out of the notes. This is just one high point on his first album in 10 years, and the 76-year-old Texan still sounds as though he could turn a room to dust.