Rather than Fireball: Muay Thai Dunk, this could have been more aptly titled as Firebrawl: Anything Goes, and I mean that in a nice way. We know enough of how sports and martial arts can coexist in movies, either in comical fashion like Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer, or played in a more deadpan, idol-movie like manner with the Jay Chou vehicle Kung Fu Dunk. Joining their ranks is this latest action film directed by Thanakorn Pongsuwan, which fuses an illegal underground basketball league, and Muay Thai fighting.
For those who want to organize their own tournament, here are the extremely simple rules as explained in the movie. It's your standard 5 on 5 basketball on a full length court, except that when the whistle blows, you can brawl with your opponent immediately, which makes it something like a WWE Royal Rumble, only faster and more brutal. To win, you still have to put the ball into your opponent's goal/basket (it's still basketball after all), but it only takes one dunk to win. Either that, or the team with the last man standing will be the victor. Killing your opponent is allowed, but only within the court (anything outside equals to punishment for the team), but there's no replacement players allowed as you progress through the stages. Which means survivors get to split more cash between them, but suffer from numerical disadvantage. Weapons are optional too.
Which makes the film perfect as an all out actioner, and Pongsuwan doesn't think twice about indulging the audience into detailed, well executed fights which take precedence over a decent game of basketball. While watching the film I felt it was a throwback to the 80s Bloodsport type of movie with gladiators battling in an arena, sans plot and character development, where the focus is to let the fists and feet do most of the talking. That said, the fight sequences were nicely shot and tightly choreographed, though it seemed more like an all-out street brawl than sticking to Muay Thai principles. Fans of hard-hitting action will definitely appreciate the ring-side seat to all of the action here, which is relentless in pace and powerful in execution.
Story-wise, it tells of the tale of Tai (Preeti Barameeanat), who has recently been released from prison because twin brother Tan got him out of jail by raising required funds for bribery, but at the price of fighting for his life in a coma at the hospital. Tai learns from Tan's main squeeze Pang (Khanutra Chuchuaysuwan), who provides a cursory and unnecessary romantic angle, that Tan often got himself badly knocked up, and discovers that his twin was actually knocked comatose by an opponent in a Fireball tournament. So like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Tai adopts Tan's identity, and finds himself looking for a team to join for the tournament, seeking revenge.
Enter Boss Den (Phutharit Prombandal), who recruits Tai's Tan into his Fireball team, led by captain and best fighter of the lot Zing (9 Million Sam, yes you read that right!), with Muk (Kumpanat Oungsoongnern), K (Anuwat Saejao) and teenager IQ (Kannut Samerjai) as the rag-tag, hastily assembled team with trust issues amongst one another, and personal issues, each from the doldrums of society, mercenaries for hire if you like, eyeing that prize money at the end of the rainbow in order to lift their lot. Throw in some match-fixing potential, which is de-facto in any underground fights, and nasty opponents with no qualms for un-sportsmanship behaviour, and you're all set for a non-stop action film where the drama in between becomes an excuse to glue the multi-faceted fight scenarios together, and when that happens, everything slows to a crawl. One of the best scenes in the film involves a training sequence where the boys play a friendly in and around a narrow and cramped apartment block, resembling a parkour-yamakasi piece.
Given knowledge that a prequel will be made, I can't help but to think that this film could end up as the "middle" movie, since it ended the way it did with doors opened for a sequel, and of course the story of Tan provides ample room for scenes before the opening shot here. The players too are likely to be similar for the prequel, and it could follow John Woo's A Better Tomorrow where you can bring back the key actor from the excuse that we're looking at the twin / likeness resembling relative, which this film had all set up, and set subsequent movies back in time too.
That said, as a basketball-type movie, Fireball would not muster any merit for lay-ups and slam dunks. But as an action film, then yes, it will satisfy any action junkie who misses the good old days of no holds barred fights, multiplied by the number of players on the court all happening at the same time.
For Singapore audiences, alas in the name of profits by the distributors, the film is severely edited in the final game so that it can be rated NC-16 rather than M18. Just as you're awaiting the climax, the censors scissors draw final blood in order to allow for that lower rating to happen, so you can only guess how some characters meet their demise. For those who cannot stand second-guessing, and prefer to see how just desserts get dished, then you might want to hold out for the DVD (if rated higher than NC-16), or watch it in a theatre somewhere else. You have been warned.