The Buddha (a.k.a., Elephant White)
Author: Kevin Bernhardt
Writer’s Potential: 3
Logline:In Thailand, an American assassin takes on a vicious gang to rescue underage prostitutes.
Synopsis:On the streets of a Bangkong slum, CURTIE CHURCH (40s, African-American) spies a group of punks making trouble. He makes a small plastic-explosive device and, making sure he’s unseen, hurls it at them. Most of the punks die, but one gets away. He returns to his superior, BHUN (50s), and reports it’s the work of a rival gang. Bhun thinks a bomb is an unusual tactic for them. RAJAHDON (50s) pays Church a total of $60,000 ($10K for each man killed). Rajahdon describes the death of his young daughter to Church, hinting that he’s hired Church to avenge her death. Church tells Rajahdon there are more in this group of punks that he needs to take out. Church meets seedy nightclub owner YOD-YOD (40s), who supplies Church with weapons, many of them pilfered from movie and TV icons. After discussing the usefulness of various weapons, Church settles on his choices. He sets up in the belltower of a Buddhist temple, across the street from a nightclub where the rival gang (known as the Ratchaburi) associates. He assumes the punks will retaliate. Church eats a takeout dinner while looking wistfully at the photo of Rajahdon’s daughter.
A noise snaps him to attention — a 14-year-old girl, MAE, is spying on him. Church demands to know why she followed him, but Mae doesn’t seem to know herself. After choking her with a rope, Church relents and ties her to a support beam. The next morning, Church finds her in heavy heroin withdrawal. Church saws the muffler off a truck and converts it into a silencer for his sniper rifle. He sets up a perch overlooking the nightclub. He tries to sleep, but Mae wants to know why he kills people. Church tells her that they hurt people. Aware that she was once forced to work for the gang, she wants to know the various places they’ve taken her, so he can find the full extent of the gang. Mae refuses to help him kill more people. That night, Church waits for the punks to attack. He kills all of them. Thanks to the silencer, nobody can figure out where his sniper perch is located. All told, he kills 11 men. At another Buddhist temple, Bhun reports news of the ambush to his boss, PRAMOJ (60s, at death’s door). They consider it unusual that the Ratchaburi would have the area staked out with snipers. The next day, one of Pramoj’s men surveys the street and figures out where the shots came from. Church watches the man make the connection, but the man doesn’t see Church. However, a monk does, and Church prepares to shoot him when Mae stops him. She tells him that monks don’t involve themselves in these affairs and agrees to help Church if he leaves the monk alone.
Mae explains that Church’s actions may affect his soul. He wonders how she knows this. She explains that, as a child, she worked in a Buddhist temple. She had such a desire to be a monk that she pretended to be a boy. She takes Church to the city dump, where the gang dumps the bodies of girls who overdose or resist. Frustrated, Church explains he wants to know where the gang forced her to work. Mae leads Church to a mansion. Church surveils and realizes the wealth, the number of people, and the organized nature suggest this is a large, dangerous gang, the Tak. After Rajahdon pays Church for his sniping, Church stabs Rajahdon’s hand, pinning it to a table, and demands to know why Rajahdon sent him after the Tak. This is news to Rajahdon, who’s shocked and immediately wants to cease his plan. Church refuses to walk away. Church returns to his sniper perch, where he sees the Tak leading a huge, white elephant down the street, folllowed by Pramoj and Bhun in a limo. Church unties Mae, waking her, and asks what the white elephant means. She explains it’s a rare avatar where the soul of a future Buddha waits to be reborn. It’s a safety precaution for the Tak in Ratchaburi territory, because nobody would risk taking a shot and killing Buddha.
Inside the club, Pramoj apologizes to a Ratchaburi boss. They both agree mistakes have been made and a mysterious third party has tried to pit them against each other. Back in the limo, Pramoj laments his weakness. He explains to Bhun that he’s dying and hasn’t secured a successor yet. The obvious choice would be his son, but his son is too flighty. Bhun feels he’s unworthy of consideration, but Pramoj believes he’d be perfect. Still, he wants to wait until power has been transferred before starting a war. Church goes to Yod-Yod and asks for more advanced weapons. When he returns to the belltower, he finds both Mae and his money are gone. Suddenly paranoid, Church searches the temple, expecting an ambush. Mae eventually reveals herself, saying the monks untied her, and she kept the money with her because she didn’t feel it was safe hidden in loose floorboards. They return to the belltower together, and Church trusts her enough to not tie her up again. The monks honor Church by bringing him food. Mae tells Church that the monks disagree about the moral righteousness of Church’s actions — killing is wrong, but if Church only kills those who harm others, then it balances.
Church sets up a sniper perch across from the Tak mansion. He moves from window to window, finding Tak gangsters who are alone and taking them out quickly. Eventually, he reaches a room where Mae stands, talking to some Tak. Church continues shooting, racking a significant body count before rival Tak snipers figure out where the shots are coming from and start shooting at Church. Other Tak are dispatched to surround the building Church is firing from. After taking a few shots, Church struggles to get down without being noticed. He heads across the street, correctly assuming so many Tak are distracted trying to find him elsewhere, they’ve let their guard down in the mansion. He steals a truck, killing its waiting driver, and speeds away before any Tak can figure out what happened. Eventually, Church hears the voices of girls coming from the back. He pulls into an alley, where he finds a fresh group of prostitutes — and Mae. Church tries to convince the girls to leave and go back to freedom, but Mae tells him they have nowhere to go. Unable or unwilling to help them, Church storms away. Mae follows. They get into a cab, where Church interrogates Mae. She explains that she went to the mansion to tell the gangsters that Church would stop killing them if they stopped what they were doing. Mae is disappointed that Church didn’t help the girls. Church explains that that isn’t his role. Church gets out of the cab and collapses.
One of the Tak snipers got a good enough look at Church to draw an accurate sketch. Bhun is pleased. He and Pramoj discuss the possible sources for Church’s arsenal and narrow it down to the ones who speak English. Bhun visits Yod-Yod, who claims he was robbed by a Pakistani. Bhun knows this isn’t true but doesn’t let on, instead sending spies to monitor him. Church awakens in the belltower, where the monks have patched up his wounds and covered him with sacrificial fire ash to protect him. Church sends the monks away and leaves. Mae warns him that he’s in no condition to go anywhere. Church returns to Rajahdon for his latest payment. Rajahdon is now desperate to cancel the deal, now that Church has been both injured and seen, but Church announces that it’s over when he says it is. Church sets up a sniper perch in an empty office building across from Yod-Yod’s club. He takes out the Tak snipers keeping an eye on the club, then goes to talk to Yod-Yod, who’s grown increasingly paranoid. Church shows Yod-Yod a phone he stole from a Tak soldier. It rings, and Church answers, demanding to speak with the boss. Pramoj gets on the line. Church threatens Pramoj, but Pramoj believes what he’s doing is acceptable. Angry, Yod-Yod allows Church one last gun before he flees town, in exchange for 50% of whatever Church is making.
Church returns to the belltower, where the monks want to help Church by cleansing him spiritually. Church has no interest. Mae gives an eerie warning about Rajahdon, suggesting he’s not who he says he is. Church follows Rajahdon to a brothel. After shooting a bunch of Rajahdon’s men in order to get to Rajahdon himself, Church demands to know what’s going on. Rajahdon won’t answer; instead, he offers Church double what he’s already received in exchange for killing Bhun. Meanwhile, Bhun kidnaps and tortures Yod-Yod, trying to find out information about Church. Yod-Yod gives his name and explains he’s hired by governments when they need something bad to happen without being connected to it.
Church returns to the belltower, where the monks have set up a spirit-catching sculpture. Mae explains that it will catch a good ghost to guide and protect Church. Church decides to leave. He calls Yod-Yod, who makes Church aware that he’s not alone, and asks for a final favor: he’ll leave Mae with some money if Yod-Yod gets her set up with a new identity and put into a good school. Yod-Yod hangs up, revealing he’s in cahoots with Rajahdon. Rajahdon wants Church dead, but Yod-Yod gripes that that’s not part of the deal. When Rajahdon threatens his life, Yod-Yod goes along with it. Before he leaves, Church buys Mae a beautiful dress. She’s touched. He tells her to wait at the temple for Yod-Yod. Waiting for his plane to depart, Church gets a call from Yod-Yod, tipping him off in code that men have been sent after Church at the airport. Church leaves just as the men are arriving. He speeds to the temple, where he finds a lot of dead monks and no Mae.
Church goes to the Tak temple behind their mansion, where he’s disappointed to find Rajahdon and Yod-Yod are in cahoots with the Tak. In fact, Rajahdon is Pramoj’s flighty son. He arranged this entire ordeal to prove to his father he’d make a good leader. Church shoots Rajahdon in the head and offers all his money to Pramoj in exchange for the release of all his girls. When Church doesn’t find Mae among them, he’s livid. He looks at Pramoj’s wall of photos, which contains pictures of every girl the Tak have ever taken. Mae is on the wall — with a Pramoj that’s at least 30 years younger. Stunned, Church gives them the money and leaves. Pramoj and Bhun send every one of their men after Church. Church hides out the woods, constantly looking through his sniper scope to see if the Tak have found him. Then, he hears the voice of Mae. She explains she’s a spirit who has helped him come to the final decision to stay in Bangkok and right the Tak’s wrongs. Now that he has made the decision, she can really help him.
As Tak soldiers approach en masse, far too many for one man to take on, trailed by a white elephant (on which Church believes he sees Mae riding), the spirit of Mae possesses Church and makes him an unstoppable killing machine. Bodies stack up. Once Church has taken care of them, Church returns to the temple to take care of the trembling, alone Pramoj.
Comments:The Buddha attempts to combine a straightforward action story with Far East mysticism. The combination of unsatisfying action sequences and incongruous spirituality leads to a truly absurd, disappointing resolution. As written, it merits a pass.
Like many action stories, the first act introduces a lone-wolf antihero hired to do a simple job that quickly becomes more complicated. Although it’s nothing special, the story starts out well enough, laying the groundwork for future plot complications efficiently. The first and second acts are evenly divided between action sequences and scenes between Church and Mae.
Aside from doling out information about Buddhist customs and philosophy, Mae serves virtually no purpose until the third act — everything she helps Church do, he could easily accomplish by tailing Tak gangsters or prostitutes, as he does later in the script — which makes their scenes together tedious and frustrating. Until the last few pages, Mae doesn’t cause Church to let his guard down or become an interesting or sympathetic character.
The third act is little more that plot twists an action, as each of the villains (and some of the good guys) reveal their true natures. The duplicitous nature of shady characters like Yod-Yod and Rajahdon are so obvious, it’s hard to believe a brilliant assassin who has never allowed anyone to get the drop on him wouldn’t figure these things out sooner. Nevertheless, it all builds to an unintentionally comical resolution in which Church merges with the soul of Mae (who, it turns out, was a ghost all along) in order to kill every member of the Tak organization. The writer is going for heady symbolism, but it just comes across as silly.
The relationship between Church and Mae becomes the script’s biggest liability. As a character, Mae is extremely thin, little more than an interpretor to explain to Church (and, by extension, the audience) the customs and attitudes of Thai culture. Church could also use a bit more depth, but he falls into the “taciturn action hero” archetype, which makes it a little easier to believe that he wouldn’t betray much information about himself, even if it means he remains a dull enigma. The writer indicates in the third act that Church essentially sees Mae as a surrogate daughter, but this never comes across in their earlier scenes, making his sudden transformation feel arbitrary and hard to believe.
The remaining characters are little more than uninteresting stock villains. The most nuanced character by far is Yod-Yod, a slippery pragmatist who obeys only the people who pay the most and/or fill him with the most fear. Like Mae, however, Yod-Yod’s role is fairly limited. He mostly just talks in detail about guns and divulges most of Church’s backstory when Bhun starts torturing him.
Nearly all of the action sequences are comprised of Church shooting unknown characters with a sniper rifle. As action goes, few choices are less compelling than watching the hero shoot people the audience has no vested interest in from a distance of 50 yards. The sequences lack any sort of visceral intensity or real suspense. With the exception of sniping the Tak mansion, nobody ever knows where Church is, so he’s never in jeopardy. When he finally does get up close and personal with Tak soldiers, he’s super-powered by a spirit, so even then, he’s not in danger.
The ridiculous story and dull action sequences effectively ruin any possibility of this script succeeding without major work.