Ong Bak 2: The Beginning
Directed by Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai. Starring Tony Jaa, Primorata Dejudom, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang, Santisuk Promsiri, Patthama Panthong, Nirut Sirichanya. (2008, R, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 6, 2009
Nobody who's seen the original Ong Bak can deny Bangkok-born superstar Jaa's martial arts prowess. Jaa, wiry and intense in the best chop-socky tradition, made an amazing, thrilling impression in that first 2003 film. More flexible than Plasticman and more frenetically, kinetically riveting than a tiger, tiger burning bright in Thai forests of the night (Blake might as well have been discoursing on the deeply feral precision and sinewy physicality of the actor), Jaa arrived on the international film scene and was greeted as though he were the second coming of Jackie Chan. Alas, while Chan turned out to be as good a director and storyteller as he was an artisan of fisticuffs, this directorial debut from Jaa (with Rittikrai, who produced and acted as stunt coordinator on last year's mesmerizing Chocolate) proves that even if you can wrestle with a live crocodile or run atop a surging herd of elephants, that doesn't necessarily mean you can craft a coherent story. Action set-pieces aside (the final, 20-minute battle is a jaw-dropper), Ong Bak 2 is a mess. Widely rumored to have suffered a sudden lack of funding midway through a grueling shoot in the Thai highlands, the film is a historical epic that charges along with the momentum of a runaway freight train … until it comes to a sudden dead stop, mid-melee, with only minimal explanation as to why the film is, apparently, at an end. Up until that point, however, Ong Bak 2 delivers the bruising, bloody goods with something approaching panache. Set 500 years back in feudal Thailand, Jaa plays Tien who, as a boy (and, as we later learn, a prince), is kidnapped by pirates and raised as one of their own after proving his as-yet-untempered mettle against the aforementioned croc. Many, many episodes of muay Thai fighting follow, often at the expense of a story that seems to be heading in three or four different directions at once. Wherever it goes, though, it's wet: Jaa (and Rittikrai) insert a cumulative tsunami of raindrops pattering down from on high and so many premoistened knockabouts that it's almost as though Blade Runner-era Ridley Scott had dropped by to offer the production designer some advice. All those drippy punch-outs and throat slashings eventually blur the film into a hazy, incomprehensible dream state. Ong Bak 2: The Beginning is less a traditional martial-artistry marathon than it is an exercise in filmic frustration, lovely to look at by small degrees, but a mud-spattered mess of a movie overall.