Ong Bak 2 + Ong Bak 3

Dir: Tony Jaa + Panna Rittikrai
Star: Tony Jaa, Sarunyoo Wongkrachang, Primorata Dejudom, Chupong Chungpruk

I combine these two, since they are one three-hour movie, to all intents and purposes, divided in half - and bearing absolutely no relation to the original Ong Bak. That was a contemporary movie, this one whizzes back half a millennium or so, and tells the story of Tien (Jaa), the son of a provincial ruler. He sees his parents killed by their rival Lord Rajasena (Wongkrachang), and Tien barely escapes himself. The first film covers this in a series of flashbacks, as well as his capture by slavers, escape and adoption by the leader of an outlaw gang. Tien becomes an expert fighter, and the film ends with Tien discovering who killed his parents, but at the cost of his own capture by Rajasena. The sequel follows immediately on, with Tien being beaten mercilessly before escaping capture. There follows the inevitable rehabilitation, and Tien reunites with childhood sweetheart Pim (Dejudon), before he finally returns to kick ass on Bhuti Sangkha (Chungpruk), the minion who overthrew Rajasena.

Despite the differing era, the strengths and weaknesses are the same as the original: "action" and "everything else", respectively. The earlier film is the stronger, despite its lack of a conclusion. It leaps back and forth in time like a startled gazelle, probably for pacing reasons, as the early stages of Tien's life are largely fight-free, but the final battle is just so damn impressive as to make you forget the movie's earlier issues. I've never seen anyone use an elephant as a prop in a martial-arts fight before. That's just part of a fabulous sequence, where Tien fights his way up towards the big boss...only to then get kicked all the way back down to Level One the ground. Where the elephant is waiting. Jaa has broadened his styles somewhat, not just using Muay Thai here, but a range of forms including drunken boxing. The whole thing works, as long as you regard it as a show-reel for Jaa's ability to kick ass, not as an actual motion picture, with things like meaningful character development or an ending.

Part three, while more linear, suffers from efforts to add a philosophical justification for the violence. The moral appears to be - and I stress the word "appears" - that you can only successfully kick ass if you do so without hatred or desire for revenge. Which kinda removes the entire point, I'd say. This results in a strange climax where Tien gets impaled, realizes the folly of seeking revenge, and then cranks events back so he can kick ass (again, aided by a pachyderm) with the appropriately clear heart. Even by the loose standards of storytelling on view here, it's a cheap shot, and compared to the insanity of its predecessor, the action is more than slightly "meh". Especially after watching Tien hobble around for much of the film, we expected better. Perhaps the films make more sense to an audience familiar with the backdrop and cultural references. A Western audience just won't care.

[December 2011]

Tony makes a trunk call
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