I’ve been spending a lot of time in an MMA gym lately training for this insane, macho mid-life crisis athletic event. The guy training me is this old school martial artist from the area who has traveled around the world to learn this martial art and that and he has put a ton of emphasis on Muay Thai – Thai boxing. He spent a long time living in Thailand, training at a fighting camp and brought back these brutal training techniques to whip fat-ass web developers like me into fighting shape. The results have been pleasing. Though I’m not learning Muay Thai, previous experiences with martial arts left me with a serious lower back injury and a stern reminder that I’m not a kid any more, my time spent in the gym has given me a lot of insight into what it is that gives Thai boxing such a powerful reputation as a crushing, lethal martial art. Most Americanized systems of fighting teach the physical aspect alone, omitting the equally if not far more important role of mental and spiritual preparedness when training and fighting. We sometimes train with this heavy wooden club that looks like a really fat baseball bat. Our instructor explains that in India and Thailand where this club originates, fighters will swing this thing for hours in different ways and while they’re using it to tone and condition their body to move mountains with their hands, in their minds every swing smashes away evil. Seriously! This revelation counted as the coolest thing I’d hear that week. He went on to explain that every time one of these guys steps into the ring, their bodies are ready to fight, for sure, but in their minds and in their hearts, they weren’t about to face off against some other fighter, they were about to fight evil and they were prepared, mind, body and spirit to defeat evil. That, he explained, is what makes these guys so deadly.
Even though the evolution of the Ong Bak series has left me with a bad taste in my mouth, I can comfortably say this about them: No martial arts movie in the past has ever communicated the mental and spiritual aspect of fighting better than Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak movies. In a way, these bloody martial arts movies have become the flagship franchise of Eastern philosophy but at the expense of what made Tony Jaa so awesome in the first place.
When we last saw Tien, he was pinned to the ground by hundreds of dudes with spears after whipping ass on everything that moved. Now, we find out what happened to him. Evil lord Rajasena, who staged a series of assassinations to seize power over the province, is having Tien tortured to death for his insolence. His body broken and tortured, about to be decapitated, Tien is rescued at the last minute by a representative of another king, who takes him to a hospital in another village to be treated. After some muddled exposition about reincarnation, Tien is rescued from the edge of death but his body is terribly broken and twisted. After some more muddled exposition about reincarnation, Tien trains and trains and trains, eventually recovering fully with a righteous beard, and goes back to Rajasena’s palace to end the fight. However, during all that god damn training, the crow fighter from the previous movie, played by Dan Chupong, has managed to kill Rajasena and has taken his seat, having a new evil palace built in its stead. Tien will have to fight him, instead, in order to save the remaining villagers and his boo from the pervious movie.
I’m fairly forgiving of Thai action movies. They know who their audience is and they know what they came to see. Ong Bak 3 flies too close to the sun, though. In an attempt to break the Thai action mold and be more than just a stunt spectacle, Ong Bak 2 & 3 suffer greatly for their obscurity. Though, Ong Bak 2 had great fight scenes in spite of its unbelievably messy plot, Ong Bak 3 doesn’t actually have a whole lot going on to save it from the same problems that Jaa’s first attempt at direction brought with it. Part 3 speaks volumes about Buddhist philosophy and its relationship with fighting and training but what it all winds up boiling down to is your average good vs. evil story in that classic Star Wars template. The evil crow fighter implores Tien to let his anger flow through him and have his vengeance. It’s a classic ‘turn to the dark side’ moment but because this script and its predecessor don’t have a leg to stand on thanks to deeply trouble productions, the Star Wars recipe doesn’t really work out. Jaa’s central message of walking that Buddhist path gets lost in layer after layer of abstraction. On the bright side, the crow fighter from part 2, who just kind of shows up in the final act out of nowhere, is given some back story and he’s an interesting character with some great fighting.
All that would be fine, too. This is a Thai action movie, after all. The entire new wave of Thai genre film is characterized not by stunning scripts that explore the Buddhist principles of living a good life but by ridiculous displays of excessive, decadent stunts and fighting. Jaa pretty much took a good thing and blew it. I can certainly appreciate his insistence that there’s more to Muay Thai than knees and elbows but while he’s making these deeply introspective, spiritual martial arts movies, the rest of the Bangkok film industry is finding new ways to put their stunt crews in harm’s way all for the glory of a pulse-pounding action scene and this, in spite of everything I’ve said so far, is where Ong Bak 3 fails. There are many fight scenes in Ong Bak 3 but none of them are very good. The intricate, wince-inducing displays of elbow-on-face fights are replaced by moderately paced, thoughtful fights where Jaa doesn’t really overdo it as he should. Early on, there’s a bit of inventive brutality on display but it gives way to softer, more passive fight scenes with not much excitement to speak of.
I was convinced at one point that Tony Jaa would take the whole world by storm and would rise to status as the next Jackie Chan or Jet Li. He was skilled like no other fighting actor in the world and the ambition of his movies were second to none but successive Ong Bak sequels and their attempts to be more than they were kicked the legs right out from under them and became their own worst enemy. Part 1 is tons of fun and Part 2 is a mess rescued by killer action sequences but this final installment, though it ties the whole cycle together, doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. The first third of the movie is Tony Jaa channeling Mel Gibson’s Jesus treatment, the second third training, training, training and the final third of the movie is more or less Jaa saying fuck it, let’s just get this over with. I’m hoping that his time spent in a Buddhist monastery was enough to clear his head and get himself back on track but news about Jaa lately has been hard to come by. I guess we’ll see.