Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/29/10 15:07:03

"Tony Jaa is Bak."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I haven't actually run the numbers, but I suspect that martial arts action has an unusually high number of movies titled as though they were sequels but only vaguely connected to each other, and that's even before considering how things get retitled for foreign markets. "Ong Bak 2" is a fairly obvious example; despite the title, it is not a continuation of the story of the first; in fact, it takes place some 550 years earlier. Still, it's hardly like "Ong Bak"'s story mattered, and this movie does offer more of what the first delivered: Tony Jaa, demonstrating amazing athletic and martial arts skills.

In 1431, a young boy named Tien (Natdanai Kongthong) escapes when his noble father and bodyguards are assassinated, but it's a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire as he falls into the hands of slavers before being rescued by Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), head of a group of bandits. Tien is offered the chance to stay, learn their ways, and train with them, growing into a man (Tony Jaa) who is groomed to take Chernang's place as bandit king. And he intends to, but the men who killed his parents are still out there, amassing more power...

Though the story is not the complete mess it appeared to be on my first go-round (it was effectively 2am after a full day of travel when I saw it at SXSW last year), it has its problems. I imagine the bulk can be traced to the tumultuous shoot: Star Tony Jaa apparently bit off more than he could chew in attempting to make his directorial debut, flaking on the production until the producers dragged him out of seclusion and hired Panna Rittikrai to take over directing duties. Getting it done required some script changes and as a result, there's an occasional disjointed feel; we spend a fair amount of time with Tien's childhood friend Pim in flashbacks, only to see her briefly as an adult (Primorata Dejudom may not actually have any lines, though she dances well). New villains appear during the last action sequences without any sort of introduction, and the film stops abruptly.

Though the movie's story suffers a bit for Jaa overextending himself, the actual direction is actually fairly impressive. In many ways, even beyond the time period, Ong Bak 2 is the opposite of Ong Bak - where the previous movie was rather good-natured (even the villains were amusingly over-the-top) and shot in a straightforward manner with few stylish flourishes beyond the occasional "instant replay", there's a grim earnestness about this one, and a melodramatic tone enhanced with frequent use of slow motion. Jaa, Rittikrai, and cinematographer Nattawut Kittikhun use a lot of stark blacks and whites in their color palette, creating plenty of striking images. It's hard to know where Jaa's work stops and Rittikrai's begins, but if he matures a little and grows into the role, Ong Bak 2 indicates that there may be more to Jaa as a filmmaker than just knowing to point the camera at himself in the action sequences.

And, yes, he has quite the knack for that. Jaa and Rittikrai are credited as splitting those duties as well (Jaa as "action director", Rittikrai as "fight choreographer"), and in this category, at least, there can be little doubt that Ong Bak 2 is worth the price of admission. Jaa's athleticism is on full display, and the film makes a point to show that several different techniques and weapons are in play (as excellent as the action in Ong Bak was, it got a bit predictable: Don't let Jaa get any vertical lift, or you will take elbows to the top of the head). The last half-hour is close to non-stop martial arts, and Jaa does some absolutely amazing things on, under, and around an elephant.

Get right down to it, that's what you want from this movie - Tony Jaa doing a bunch of crazy martial arts with an elephant. Looking great is a bonus. A story that is completely coherent would be fantastic, but you can't have everything.

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