Tony Jaa (Tiang) in ONG BAK 2, photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing
Ong Bak 2, a Thai martial arts film starring the hugely popular Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, The Protector), may confuse movie-goers as much as it entertains. First off Ong Bak 2, oddly enough, does not have anything to do with Ong Bak. Well, other than the fact that they both are Thai films that feature martial artist Tony Jaa. Ong Bak 2 deals with the son of a Thai Lord named Tien/Tiang (Jaa) who at a young age escapes the treacherous and despotic Lord Rajasena after he kills Tien's parents. Tien grows to adulthood with a group of guerrilla martial artists, developing himself as an excellent martial artist and then seeks revenge for his parent's death.
It's not wise to dwell too long on the plot though, since the film itself doesn't. Let's face it, the movie is basically a vehicle for Jaa's strong skills as a martial artist. There are many scenes clearly in place to highlight Jaa's talent. At one point, Tien forces elephants into submission. While audience members might scratch their heads at these somewhat bizarre jungle diversions, if you simply look at this film as driven by what will make Jaa look cool, it all starts to make a little bit more sense. You know what would look really cool, let's have him fight on top of an elephant. Now how do we make that happen... To the film's credit, racing up the trunk of an Asian elephant into a back kick does look pretty cool.
Now plots are often not the focus in many martial arts movies so maybe we should put all of this in perspective. The late, great Bruce Lee was often in films that, while amazing, didn't always have the most developed plots. While there are exceptions, it is safe to say that Ong Bak 2 is not too unique in skimping on the plot, but it is also about degrees. Tien has excruciatingly long fight scenes that could have been severely cut to provide some room in the movie for a semblance of plot development. Ong Bak 2 pushes plot to the point of obliteration. It ultimately robs you of any feeling of satisfaction when Tien strikes back at Rajasena and any real connection to the outcome of the film itself.
Maybe we should have seen this coming though. There were widely reported problems on the set. After starring in the hugely successful Ong Bak, Jaa decided to direct the second film himself, rather than Ong Bak director Panna Rittikrai. To his credit, Jaa is hugely popular and has managed to get several Thai films into American theaters (no small feat) and is a spectacular martial artist. However, reports have emerged that Jaa lost control of this very high budget movie and disappeared into the jungle during production. He eventually returned and Rittikrai finished the film but the marks of two directors and the chaotic production are palpable in the film itself. The movie's ending is a cliffhanger, and rumors are circulating that the chaotic production meant that filmmakers were in a bind and ended the second film this way to meet previously made deadlines. So as you may have guessed, Ong Bak 3 is currently in the works.
Should you go see it? Much of this will depend on what you are looking for in a film and where you can find Ong Bak 2. The film's action sequences are impressive. Have you ever seen a martial artist fight between the legs of the elephant? It's hard not to be wowed by these scenes. If this is what you want to see in a film, the movie could be worth it for you since the plot is clearly subservient. A rather unexpected enjoyable aspect of this film is the way that the Thais have managed to exoticize themselves. There are blood-thirsty slave traders, some rather bizarre makeup, and a really strange murderous woman in a cave that sounds like a tiger. I'm not really sure what Edward Said would say about this film, but I'm sure it would be quite a bit. However, watching the disaster that is this film is actually a pleasure in itself. For most, the movie may be worth it if you can find it in a cheap theater or can wait until it comes out on DVD.
Ong Bak 2 is in theaters now.