Ong-Bak 2 (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, 2008)

When Tony Jaa burst onto the scene after Ong-Bak in 2003, I was the first to bristle. It wasn’t because of Jaa. It was because of the abundant adulation that even more mainstream movie critics were giving him along with the geekier side of the internet, which can always be counted on to make itself look silly with its unceasing praise of the deserving and undeserving alike. When I finally saw Ong-Bak, I found a handful of things that I considered flaws. The fight choreography at times jumped from being brutal and more or less realistic to repetitive and too clearly staged, like the flaming leg kick. How did just his legs end up on fire after being engulfed by an explosion?

I liked it well enough, and Tom Yum Goong -- which I saw in theaters as “The Protector,” the sort of sloppily generic one-word-with-article title that Dimension home video used to give all of Jet Li’s movies -- and had quite a good time of it. It had everything that I liked about Ong-Bak, only more of it. Ong-Bak 2, a far preceding prequel, was to be Tony Jaa’s directorial debut, adapted from a screenplay to a movie his mentor, Panna Rittikrai, unsuccessfully attempted to make, and set in eighteenth century Thailand. After having done so much to imitate Jackie Chan, it seemed like Tony Jaa decided to emulate the older kung fu film makers with a period setting that allowed for copious amounts of weaponry wielding and wanton killing without having to make up reasons for why the cops didn’t show up and put a damper on the fun. Either that or it was Jaa indulging in a huge vanity project. It ran up with all sorts of financial troubles and supposedly drove Jaa into a depressive state that halted production. It was finished with Panna Rittikrai stepping in as co-director at behest of Sahangmokol, the producing studio.

Now it’s finally out. There are legitimate dvd’s available, at least one of which has English subtitles, and a not a few people have seen it already at film festivals. Once again, the deluge of effusive critical effluvia has been mind bending -- particularly that of Harry Knowles. Allow me to quote him:
“Imagine if you will... if EXCALIBUR era John Boorman was genetically mixed with Bruce Lee and a shitload of awesome Thai badasses that nobody has ever heard of - and they created the greatest fucking CONAN movie that you've ever seen!”
That’s not even the most nonsensical thing he wrote about it either, but it’s an example of the kind of attitude that puts me and many others off. I also have to admit that watching Ong-Bak 2 at home on dvd with a couple of friends is not going to come close to the experience that Knowles had watching it with a crowd of fellow film-geeks at the South by Southwest film festival. Just know that after encountering such overblown praise, I feel compelled to approach it in a contrary manner.

I’m trying not to do that, so I’ll just tell you what I thought of the movie.

Ong-Bak 2 is shockingly good coming more-or-less from Jaa as a first time director. It’s got handsomely mounted and lensed period detail, right down to pretty much everyone sporting some perfectly un-white teeth. The display of physical ability from the cast is simply beyond phenomenal; No doubt, these are some of the most talented stunt men and fight choreographers around.

As for whether or not it is a truly great movie, it is not. There are many things that could have been better handled. The story is muddled, if not incoherent. The acting is bad. The story really doesn’t have anything going on beyond superficial revenge/redemption motif that will come to fruition in the inevitable Ong-Bak 3 (only the revenge is present in this installment), which is telegraphed so clearly by the ending that it might not be fair to critique Ong-Bak 2 without its future companion.

And you know what? That’s alright. Everything that is good about Ong-Bak 2 is exactly what you would expect from, and why you would want to go see another Tony Jaa movie. In fact, I’d say that the period setting and emphasis on traditional aspects of Thai culture -- Khon dance, in particular -- makes a much more interesting movie than the constant barrage of action scenes in Jaa’s previous vehicles. The choreography incorporates multitudinous weapons, from Thai sabers to Japanese swords to three section cudgels and rope-darts. Jaa handles them all very well, and even performs drunken boxing, hung gar, and his trademark Thai boxing. There’s a scene in the finale in which an elephant is utilized in the fight choreography. It’s incredible, audacious and dangerous action film making.

There are moments here and there where it becomes obvious that Jaa was not in complete control of. He has a fight scene with Dan Chupong which uses a great deal of wire work, similar to that seen in Panna Rittikrai’s recent Dynamite Warrior. I think it’s obvious who directed that sequence, and it’s badly out of place and kind of disappointing.

To sum it up, I liked Ong-Bak 2. I don’t think that it’s the orgasmic experience that some have described it. It will actually see release in American theaters, and if it’s playing near you, and you like these kinds of movies (if you don’t, why are you reading my blog?) it’s going to be pretty glorious to see on a big screen. Lots of movies come out that look good and expensive and offer lots of action with no story, no characters, no reason. Ong Bak 2 is the same, only the fact that real people are pulling off real stunts with real bravery and skill makes the action something worth seeing. Transformers 2 is just as dumb, but only half as fun. Be sure you see Ong Bak 2 instead, and try not to loose your pants like Harry Knowles did.

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