Wednesday, February 24, 2010

ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING (2008) - 4/5 stars

Ong Bak 1
Release: 2008
Director: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai
Writer: Ek Iemchuen, Nonthakorn Thaweesuk, Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai
Cast: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang, Nirut Sirichanya, Santisuk Promsiri
Soundtrack: Terdsak Janpan
Claim to fame: The latest martial arts masterpiece from international superstar Tony Jaa, and a very troubled production
Rating: 4/5 stars

Put yourself in Tony Jaa's shoes for a minute. With just two movies under his belt, he's become an international superstar - loved by millions of fans around the world and hailed as the next Jackie Chan AND Jet Li. The level of his stuntwork and fight choreography is literally unrivaled in the world at the moment. After the insane action spectacle of "The Protector" (US title), Jaa had the unenviable task of trying to top himself at his own game. That kind of pressure is bound to get to anybody, and during the filming of "Ong Bak 2," Jaa had something of a meltdown and disappeared into the Thai jungle for a month to do some soul-searching.

Ong Bak 8

Tony Jaa trains tirelessly with his stunt team to get each punch and kick just right for the cameras

Of course, you can't just walk off the set of a movie that you're the director and star of, not to mention one that a studio has already poured a ton of money into. The studio balked at the thought of losing their investment on "Ong Bak 2" and, perhaps wisely, brought in Tony Jaa's mentor and friend, Panna Rittikrai, to try and piece together what footage was already shot and come up with a genuine movie.

I explain all this because "Ong Bak 2" ends with a big fat "TO BE CONTINUED…" and since I didn't know that the first time I watched it, I was left disappointed. But once I put things in perspective and empathized with Tony Jaa (not hard to do cause I love the man), I was able to watch "Ong Bak 2" again and appreciate it for what it is - basically one part of a larger movie that's been cut in half due to budget concerns and Tony Jaa's mental health.

Ong Bak 9

Right away you can tell the production values are much more lavish

than Tony Jaa's previous movies

"Ong Bak 2" is a prequel to the first "Ong Bak," but it requires no knowledge of that movie. Contrary to Jaa's previous films, this movie takes place in the distant past. Whereas "Ong Bak" and "The Protector" were modern updates on the urban, stunt-filled action flicks that Jackie Chan made his bread & butter during the 80's ("Police Story," "Rumble in the Bronx"), "Ong Bak 2" harkens back to the days of the Shaw Brothers and the "5 Deadly Venoms."

Jaa doesn't leap off any tall buildings or anything like that, but he does get to show off various fighting techniques, such as Drunken Boxing (in an homage to Jackie Chan's "The Drunken Master"), and a mastery of several different weapons, including a sword and nunchucks.

Ong Bak 3

Expect to see Tony Jaa put the hurt down in several different ways

The film is set in a time of great strife for Thailand, when warlords were looking to carve up as much territory as possible, not caring what innocent people got in their way. Tony Jaa plays a boy-prince who tried to escape the conflict but instead was forced to train in the martial arts in order to get revenge for the murder of his parents. The story is told through frequent flashbacks, with a child actor who looks very much like Tony Jaa. The flashbacks come seemingly at random and some viewers might find the storytelling to be disjointed.

Overall it's a simple but effective story that's been told before, but don't be surprised if it doesn't exactly gel until you get in a second viewing. Keep in mind that there was footage shot for "Ong Bak 2" that we won't even see until "Ong Bak 3," so characters appear at random, seem important, and then disappear, leaving the viewer to scratch their head "Huh?" I'm sure all will be explained in the sequel.

Ong Bak 5

Is there any way I can get abs like this without working out everyday?

No? Hrrm. Oh well.

Sure, that might sound like a cop-out. But let's put it this way. You watch a Fred Astaire movie to see Fred Astaire dance. You watch a Tony Jaa movie to see Tony Jaa's incredible physical prowess and unrivaled fight choreography. On that front, "Ong Bak 2" delivers in spades. The movie is 90 minutes that fly right by and feature plenty of excellent fight scenes.

Tony Jaa's drunken brawl in a crowded slave market is a real standout, as is the ending fight that seems to go on and on…and on and on…in the best way possible, with dozens of guys dressed as ninjas throwing themselves at Tony Jaa, only to be utterly decimated by his flying knees and elbows.

Ong Bak 2

Even drunk off his ass, Tony Jaa can still kick yours

Further proving that other countries are superior to Hollywood, "Ong Bak 2" features a ton of cool scenes with animals, like a killer crocodile that tries to chomp down on young Tony Jaa and the stampede of elephants that Tony Jaa tames by literally *running on top of their backs*. Later on Tony incorporates an elephant into a fight scene by jumping off its tusks to knee some fool in the face. Where else are you going to see stuff like that?

Ong Bak 6

Tony Jaa - terrific fighter AND king of the beasts!

Ong Bak 7

You will believe a man can an elephant's tusk and knee you in the face

Fortunately for us fans, "Ong Bak 2" was a smash success in Thailand, if not in America, so production started right away on "Ong Bak 3." It will be released in Thailand in April 2010. Hopefully that means we'll see (region free, English-subbed, please?) DVDs of the film available online by the end of the summer.

Panna Rittikrai has promised we'll find out who the mysterious crow-fighter is, why Tony Jaa is glimpsed with a beard at the end of the movie, what the film's connections to the original "Ong Bak" are, AND whether or not Jaa's character will finally get revenge for the deaths of his family. Until then we've got this kinda finished, kinda not, movie called "Ong Bak 2." But with action sequences this kinetic and this plentiful, it's hard to complain.

Ong Bak 4

Tony - keep doing what you're doing! We love you, man!

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