Thursday, September 17, 2009


(Midnight Madness)
(Thailand, 2009, 110 minutes)
Written by: Panna Rittikrai
Directed by: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai
Cast: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang

For those of you who just had to know how orphan Ting came to be a Buddhist-raised Muay Thai master and defender of the village of Nong Pradu, Tony Jaa answers your questions with his directorial debut “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning”--only six years after his international smash “Ong Bak: The Warrior”—but, thankfully, not at the expense time in front of the camera, where he continues to redefine the critical term “here comes da pain” (thanks to Al Pacino and Brian DePalma).

Arguably even more numbskull’d and arbitrarily plotted than the original, “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” makes for a satisfying experience to forgiving fans willing to gnash their teeth and play along precisely for those qualities. Character arcs? Structural beams? “Indoor bullstuff”, as Joe Bob Briggs would so aptly put it. The chief draw here is Jaa’s creation of “Natayuth”, a “dancing art” that fuses various fighting styles from around the world. And lots of elephants…

The story begins in 15th century Thailand (talk about a prequel!), where Tien (Natdanai Kongthong), the 10-year old son of Lord Sihadecho, survives the massacre of his village by Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrachang), who has assumed control of Asia and has ordered all subversives executed, and that includes Thien’s parents. Within seconds of being captured by slavers (snaggle-toothed natives of standard ooga-booga issue), Tien is dowsed with blood and forced into pit-fighting a crocodile. But the guerilla group Garuda Wing Cliff has already infiltrated the camp and one of its soldiers, Cher Nung (Sorapong Chatree), helps Tien escape (but not before he dispatches the croc). The boy is then taken to the requisite blind mystic (Cher Nung), who declares that the boy will grow to become the greatest warrior that ever lived. After a series of tournaments bouts, where he successfully spars with warriors from Thailand, China, Japan, and Indonesia, the stoic, adult Tien (Jaa, taking over) is the youngest warrior ever to master the art of Muay Thai, seeks revenge on Rajasena and free his childhood sweetheart Pim (Primata Dej-Udom) from his control…

This is a much more lavish production than its predessor, and the bucks are on the screen, from the period costumes and weaponry to the epic massacre—a flurry of rampaging horses, swordplay, and exploding gunpower bombs worthy of Ridley Scott--that opens the film. But Jaa, as a director, doesn’t seem to trust his own abilities enough to let them play out in all their breathtaking natural glory, and relies too much on image saturation tricks and, more intrusively, varying film speeds that undermine his consistently inventive stunt work and gravity-defying moves.

Thankfully, he’s wise enough to let the camera sit still for awhile, esp. in the jaw-dropping extended set piece where Tien navigates a herd of rampaging elephants in what plays as an ode (intentional or not) to Yakima Cannutt’s famous “drop” in John Ford’s “Stagecoach” without somuch as a pixel of CG enhancement. Jaa almost tops it with a dizzing skirmish in which Tien battles an opponent atop, below, and around his trusty elephant sidekick “Black Tusk” like a sinewy Tasmanian Devil.

The climactic fight is equally thrilling—the best “Boss Level” in a film that’s a series of nothing but--and reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s “Game Of Death”, with Tien dispatching various masked assassins as he works his way up the successive levels of a temple for a final face-off with Rajasena.

Subtitles for foreign language productions vary in even the best instances, but I found some of the translations here to be spectacularly absurd, esp. the need to spell out “Hurray!” when the onscreen crowd so clearly utters it at top volume.

Unfortunately, “Ong Bak 2”takes a frustrating “Matrix Reloaded”/”Kill Bill Vol. 1” turn by ending just as Tien is captured by Rajasena’s soldiers and ordered to be tortured. A narrator informs us of Tien’s possible reincarnation and the final image of that of Ting standing before the head of Buddha that serves as the McGuffin for the original film.

No surprise, then, that “Ong Bak 3” is on the way. “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” hits North American theatres on October 23, or you could wait it out for the eventual DVD triple-bill and get it over with all in one shot…

©Robert J. Lewis 2009