“Ong Bak 2” (2008), dir. Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai
I’m not sure which I like better, a really bad martial arts movie with a handful of really impressive fight scenes, or an ok movie with just some pretty darn good ones. Ong Bak 2, starring Tony Jaa, is the second.
Now it is nice to see the physically talented Tony Jaa in a watchable adventure. His previous movies were lame constructions to showcase his talents: the kind where you wait for the DVD and then fast-forward through ninety-percent of it to get to the fight sequences. It’s too bad that Rittikrai, who also wrote the script, isn’t much of a storyteller; with a little originality this movie could have been really good. But instead it is merely “not too bad”, essentially a patchwork of cliches, featuring the revenge of the murdered father, the appearance of the Long Lost Love in the clutches of the Arch Enemy, and the Hero vs. All the Bad Guys finale. It also suffers from a bizarre (and unsatisfying) ending, apparently the result of major budget issues and in turn an unfinished picture.
Yet two key improvements make the movie easy to watch. First, the production value is vastly superior to his other movies. Second, and for me even more important, is that there is none of the childish slapstick so common in martial arts films (especially Jackie Chan’s from the 70’s and 80’s and in Jaa’s own Ong Bak and The Protector). The flip side of that is that Jaa the actor is seemingly incapable of facial expression. Combined with the rampant bloodshed, multiple betrayals and the absence of humor, Jaa’s lack of charm leaves us with a fairly dreary tale.
The fight scenes in Ong Bak 2 are not as jaw-dropping as those in his other movies, but physically, Jaa can just about hang with the best of Chan or Lee. By far the most fascinating stunts are acrobatics done with (on/around/under!) elephants, which is no mean feat, and probably worth the rental price alone. But instead of slo-mo isolation of Jaa, there is more attention given to broader battle scenes and plot.
I’m still expecting to see Jaa appear as the Bad Guy in an American action flick. I don’t know if he speaks English or if he prefers to work only at home, but I hope he continues to improve on his own and in his own country, rather than become a silent sideshow villain who has to get his ass kicked by Hayden Christensen or some other clumsy pretty boy with the bigger box-office pull.