A two for one Far East Special today for the readers (a 'capsule reviews' version of Far East Specials in a sense). Curiously enough, Between the Seats has never seen the original Ong Bak film, although cursory research revealed that the second and third films in the trilogy have next to nothing to do with the original. In fact, they consist of a two-part prequel which occurs about 600 years before Ong Bak, the story of which was set in present day.
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai)
The film opens on a dreary rainy night. A soldier is rushing through the jungles on horseback, carrying a child with him. Evil men chasing are them! The poor soldier is eventually trapped and killed, but not before he tosses the child, still alive, into the thick bushes. The boy, Tien, is found by slave owners who kidnap the lad and transport him into town for the purpose of violent sport to amuse the public. Thankfully, a band of trained thieves arrives on time to spoil the event, taking Tien with them in the process, who spends the remainder of his childhood, teenage years and early adulthood (by this time played by Tony Jaa) training in the many forms of martial arts. The band's biggest enemy is a ruthless regional governor, Lord Rajesena (Sarynyu Wongkrachang), whom they are in a constant struggle with. Soon however, Tien will have to reconcile his present with his early child years, which is revealed through a series of flashbacks.
There are many reasons to love Ong Bak 2, chief among them the quality of the stunt and fight work, which is arguably second to none in the contemporary landscape of martial arts cinema, including Donnie Yen's films, as great as those ones are. The strength, precision, fluidity and intensity which Tony Jaa brings to his films and Ong Bak 2 in particular is nothing short of praiseworthy. True to the nature of such movies, much of the stunts, punches and kicks look as if they genuinely hurt given how the camera never cuts away to cheapen the visceral effect of each contest. Directors Rittikrai and Jaa are in truth not asked to do too much with the camera other than to make sure that it is always in the right spot at the right time to capture the full glory of a blow. Tony Jaa is a martial arts superman.
Jaa's mere presence is near mesmerizing, especially in the moments prior to a fight. Some fighters simply have a menace about them, and there is little question that when Jaa stares down an opponent , as the viewer anticipates the brilliance that is to follow momentarily, the other fellow had better watch himself. A story driven aspect which makes Jaa's work all the more impressive and enthralling is how the band of thieves he has joined includes individuals who specialize in specific forms of combat, which of course means that Tony Jaa himself 'must' be great at each and every one of those disciplines. There is a sequence when the character of Tien enters his final trials in order to prove his worth to the clan leaders, thus forcing him to skirmish with the each master of his respective art form. The sequence does not last long and everyone watching fully knows whether or not Tien will succeed his exam, but the pleasure of watching a single character perform so many incredible physical feats is grand enough to wait through some of the film's predictability. As the story enters its final stages, the action picks up with jaw dropping intensity, with Tony Jaa, his opponents and basically everyone involved in making those scenes a reality putting on one of the greatest shows ever.
Where the movies stumbles is in its story, which feels half hazard at times, is the overall tone. Ong Bak 2 is a gritty movie, with several sections being quite dark, moody, even bitter. It has an attitude and is unafraid to show it, which it sets it apart from some of Jaa's previous films, like The Protector, which were juggled action and comedy much more consistently. It would be ludicrous to argue that Ong Bak 2 lives and dies by its story. Its priorities are clearly set elsewhere, but what little script exist does just enough to carry Tien's journey, while the action does the rest.
Ong Bak 3 (Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai)
The third and final chapter in the Ong Bak trilogy finishes the story which began in its immediate predecessor, which ended abruptly on a cliffhanger. Tien is now in the clutches of his mortal enemy, Lord Rajesena, the former's band now scattered and mostly disintegrated. Rajesena has Tien goes through a series of horrific, physically taxing punishments. It is only when a decree from a mysterious ally forces the evil Lord to let Tien out of his custody that the hero is able to stay alive. It tuns that that an old flame, Pim (Primorata Dejudom) has managed to save him from certain death. Now, battered and more than just bruised, Tien goes through a long, trying process of physical, mental and spiritual healing, devoting himself to the teachings of Buddha before one final confrontation with Rajesena and a new force of evil, the Crow Ghost (Dan Chupong).
There are a few significant reasons not to love Ong Bak 3, but the most egregious is the simplest: it is, for far too much of its running time, slow and boring. The boredom is the ironic result of the Jaa and Rittikrai's efforts to make a real, complete film, one that aims for emotional and possibly intellectual depth. First and foremost, an Ong Bak film is not the venue for such a thing, but even if somebody absolutely wanted to perform such an exercise (and that is their prerogative), these two directors are perhaps not the best suited to venture into such narrative territory. They make action movies, that is what they are good at, not having a protagonist spend nearly 40 minutes whimpering and then meditating. Perhaps it was more than 40, perhaps it was less, the point is that the middle portion of the film which has Tien re-invent himself is embarrassingly out of place to the point where one would be forgiven for forgetting that they are even watching a Tony Jaa film.
To add to the boredom is the film's sudden decision to, out of the blue, to give Lord Rajesena more screen time with a subplot about him being haunted by memories of the previous lord's curse. It turns out Rejesena poisoned the fellow and just before passing into the next world, his last words put a frightful curse on the villain. He now experiences atrocious headaches and terrifying nightmares (brought to screen via paltry computer generated imagery). This subplot serves strictly no purpose. How does this help 'develop' the character of Rajesena? Why is it in this movie at all? This angle is made all the more ridiculous by the fact that a new, more powerful antagonist makes his presence known, that being the Crow Ghost, who, spoiler warning, kills off Rejesena about halfway into the movie! Huh?
At the very least, the action is quite good. For some reason, perhaps because the decorative visuals are cheaply enhanced by computer imagery, they fail to impress as much as they did on the second film. That in no way means they are poor. A lot of what Jaa does in the final battle is pretty neat, such as using a small troop of elephants to combat a series of soldiers on top of, underneath and around the giant beasts. The problem is that the movie takes so much time getting their... A disappointing final entry, to say the least.