A new Tony Jaa movie is a real cause for celebration. Asian action has been in a slump for a real long time so when Tony Jaa came along, I practically shed delicious tears of joy. I hadn’t seen a martial arts movie like Ong Bak since the salad days of Jackie Chan. It’s light on plot but features some of the most intricate and exciting stunt and fight scenes that I have ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of martial arts movies. Tom Yum Goong, the Ong Bak follow up is pretty ridiculous and reproduces the slim plot of Ong Bak by replacing the stolen statue head with an elephant but because of some extremely brutal fight scenes and some ballsy stunts, most action fans easily look past its shortcomings. Even when a guy picks up and throws a live elephant.
So I nearly passed out when I heard that Jaa was back at it. Not only was he starring in a sequel to the first Ong Bak, he would be directing it! But things got dark on the production trail. The movie went way over budget and Jaa was clearly in over his head. There were problems with the studio and it seemed like he burned bridges with his pal and mentor, Panna Rittikrai. This shit went way off the rails. Then Jaa disappeared, allegedly practicing black magic in a cave somewhere in the jungle. Of course, this wasn’t true but some of the rumors in the strange tale of Ong Bak 2’s production were. Thankfully, Jaa managed to wrap it up and while this kind of turbulence is usually a strong indication that the movie in peril is going to blow goats, a promo reel out of Cannes in 2008 highlighted a period picture where Jaa not only put his Thai boxing skills on display but also demonstrated snake fist kung fu and drunken boxing. Word had it that this was going to be a buffet of martial arts and they weren’t kidding.
Jaa plays Tean, son of a powerful general who is put into hiding when his father’s enemies begin their push to dominate the country and kill all who oppose them. Their mission is nearly completed but Tean manages an escape only to be captured by slave traders who force him to fight a crocodile for their entertainment. But when Tean displays a rare tenacity, an invading group of pirates take him in and spend years training him in a variety of martial arts. He learns Thai boxing, kung fu and Japanese swordsmanship and in a rite of passage scene, the grown Tean demonstrates them all. Because of his exceptional fighting skills, Tean rises to command the pirates that took him in and uses his position to get revenge on the people who killed his family.
It’s not clear, exactly, how this is a sequel to Ong Bak. The two movies share absolutely nothing in common aside from some Elephants and Thai boxing. However, the story is predictably cheap. Thailand isn’t particularly known for challenging storytelling and Jaa made it pretty clear from the earliest mention of the production that he was going to be celebrating the martial arts movies that inspired him to become a performing martial artist. And he nearly succeeded. Toward the end of the movie, it becomes painfully clear that Ong Bak 2 ran into problems. The wafer thin plot begins to take on water at around the one hour mark and the pieces no longer seem to fit. What should have been a cut and dry revenge story suddenly goes haywire and loses focus. Our villain, who is scarcely mentioned to this point appears to be killed too early in the story and upon returning to his village, Tean is suddenly faced down by an army of the King’s soldier’s, some of whom seem to possess supernatural powers. It results in one hell of a fight but just when it seems like all is lost, the credits roll and the movie ends with a shoddy narration asking you believe in Tean so that he can cheat death. Does he? Fuckin’ beats me. Sure doesn’t look like it from the looks of things. Word has it from Rittikrai that this ending is, in fact, a cliffhanger and you’ll have to wait and see Ong Bak 3 to find out if Tean makes it out alive.
Now that I have the script shortcomings out of the way, I’d like to address the fighting and the stunts. I advise you to wear adult diapers during a screening of Ong Bak 2. You will shit your pants. I’ve seen some impressive martial arts movies in my time but few have ever reached to be so ambitious! Jaa studied a wide menu of fighting styles in order to bring you a martial arts movie unlike you’ve ever seen out of Thailand. Where most Thai action flicks are happy to provide you with ballsy, daring stunts and Thai boxing, Ong Bak 2 adds Chinese and Japanese styles to the picture and Jaa transitions from one style to the next with the grace of a seasoned master. Watch the hand and foot forms as he fights. During the climactic village fight scene toward the end, Jaa assumes traiditonal Thai boxing hand a foot forms, presenting knees and elbows, he whips ass and then moves into a cat stance for tiger crane boxing without missing a beat. He utilizes swords, moving on to three section staff (which magically appears out of nowhere) and into rope dart. It’s absolutely fucking amazing! The fight scenes are brutal and kinetic, each framed and shot with grace and skill.
Though the final confrontation between Jaa and a series of mysterious masters including a barely recognizable Dan Chupong (from my other favorite Thai action flick, Born To Fight) who fights Jaa on top of a live elephant using eagle claw while behaving like a bird, is quite a sight the real hero shot of the movie is a kick ass drunken boxing fight between Jaa and the man who nearly had him killed as a child by throwing him into an alligator pit. Drunken boxing hasn’t been seen at the movies for some time and it certainly hasn’t been seen like this. Gone is the goofy and rehearsed Jackie Chan style of drunken boxing which utilizes Chan’s natural clown persona to craft a fun and light fight scene. In its place is an absolutely brutal and unpredictable fight scene that looks as though Jaa may actually be kicking ass after a bottle of Colt 45.
Ong Bak 2 moves along at an absolutely staggering pace until it loses its footing on its way to the third act and replaces resolution with a jaw dropping, drawn out fight scene. Because the fighting is so good, I’m willing to give Jaa and Rittikrai the benefit of the doubt and forgive the sudden and ridiculous cliffhanger ending. The road leading up to that point where it all fades to black and a narrator asks you to believe in Tean is a delicious cocktail of fighting styles. It lacks many of the acrobatic stunts of Jaa’s previous movies, for instance the awesome alley chase scene from Ong Bak, but it makes up for it with a variety of fighting styles that prove Jaa’s ability as a martial artist. He’s still not much of an actor, being as wooden as they come, but his grace and skill are unmatched. The film also takes some departures from previous Thai action in that it lacks the usual bloody beatdown of a kali stick fight and very little of the traditional Thai boxing dress. There’s even a beautiful dance number and a funny cameo by Jaa regular, Petchtai Wongkamlao. If you’re the type that’s out for an supreme ass kick movie, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a more exciting picture than Ong Bak 2.