Ong Bak 2 - Review : DJ MACK

All right, it's sequel time! Ong Bak 2: The Beginning is the unhyphenated follow-up to Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, and the star from the first film, Tony Jaa, is returning to star and co-direct this sequel. If you haven't seen the first Ong Bak, here's what you need to know: nothing. At all. I'm serious, this sequel has absolutely nothing, even thematically, to connect it to the first movie. Well, maybe it's a prequel, right? It does take place over 500 years ago. Nope, it's not. I didn't even hear the words "Ong Bak" mentioned once in the whole movie. That's not a bad thing, since the original movie was only worth watching for the action scenes, but it's still kind of odd. I'm sure the Thai filmmakers just used the title to capitalize on the American DVD success of the first film, but I still think it's strange to have absolutely no mention of the title in the movie. The year was 1974. The Ramones were playing their first shows, Charles Bronson played a surprisingly violent watermelon farmer in Mr. Majestyk, and Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record. Wait...that doesn't seem right...oh, it's 1974 on the Buddhist calendar, which is 1421 on the Gregorian calendar. That changes things a bit. Tien is the tween son of a respected provincial Lord in Siam (sadly, not Yul Brynner). When his family and their soldiers are ambushed by a power-hungry ruler of a neighboring city-state, Tien only narrowly escapes with his life. His family is not so lucky. Not that I would exactly call Tien "lucky;" he is almost immediately captured by slave traders. When he proves to be too ornery to trade, he is thrown into a watery pit to fight a crocodile to the death.
Well, maybe he is lucky --- Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), leader of the Garuda Wing Cliff gang of assassins/bandits, randomly shows up and beats up the slave traders. Chernang doesn't save Tien from the croc, though; he tosses the kid a knife and tells him, "Your life depends on you." Tien kills the crocodile, earns the respect of Chernang, and is raised by him to become the greatest warrior in the world and the future leader of the Garuda Wing Cliff clan. Fast-forward about a decade, and Tien (Tony Jaa) is ready to use his fighting ability to avenge his family. And kill dozens of bad guys, naturally. If you have seen the low-budget Tony Jaa stunt spectacular that is Ong-Bak, you will immediately be shocked by how much better Ong Bak 2 is. To quote my lovely wife, this sequel/prequel/not-really-a-quel-at-all "looks like an actual movie and not a snuff film." You would think setting the film in the ancient past would have introduced production problems (costumes, buildings, and weapons all need to be made), but this movie looks surprisingly good. There is a whole lot more violence and gore this time around, and the fighting scenes (which are why you want to watch Tony Jaa) are pretty impressive. Thankfully, Jaa's co-stars actually look like they're fighting back in this one, so it is far more entertaining than the original.
I wouldn't say that Tony Jaa's acting has improved, though. The kid that played Tien in the first half of the film did a pretty decent job showing emotions, but Jaa is limited to a frowny face. There really aren't any standout performances in this cast, but I thought Sorapong Chatree did a pretty solid job as the leader of the bandits/assassins/fighting enthusiasts. I did notice Petchtai Wongkamlao's (Jaa's co-star in the first movie) cameo early in the film, and I have to admit he is much better suited for small bits of physical comedy than his Rob Schneider-esque sidekick performance in the original. The head slave trader was played by a pretty menacing giant, but I can't figure out what the actor's name is. We'll just call him Andre. I'm not sure just how good the direction was in this movie. Yes, the acting was better (or maybe just more appropriate) than in the first film, but was it actually good? Not really. But this was never going to be a film that focused on the acting. This is a movie for an action director or two. Tony Jaa and Panna Rittkrai (who was the stunt coordinator in Ong-Bak) co-directed Ong Bak 2, which probably explains the heavy shift in focus to fight scenes. And those scenes are pretty impressive. The great thing about this movie is that it does not suffer from lackey-lag. In every other Jaa movie I have seen, there is a point toward the end of the film where Jaa decides to beat up about fifty bad guys at once; these bad guys usually get kicked once, fall down and stay down. This time, though, Jaa has weapons and is killing/incapacitating all his enemies, so it actually makes sense for the bad guys to not get up and attack him some more. The camera work is solid in these action scenes, too --- you would think that it would be tough to capture the physicality of these fight sequences, but all the important (or at least, the most affecting) details shine through.
What about the story? It's okay. This is a revenge tale, and I'm usually a big fan of those; revenge leads to violence, and violence in Asian movies usually leads to martial arts, which are awesome. That said, this story is a little odd. Okay, fine...I get the reasoning behind why Tien's family was killed. That makes sense. The whole bit where the bandits train Tien also makes sense. I even understand why Tien is in an extended dance sequence as he tries to kill his father's usurper. But then things start to get weird. For starters, a random supernaturally-powered bird character appears out of the effing blue and is apparently more than a match for Tien. That was a random thing to throw into the movie's final act. At least they made up for that weirdness by having them fight...on an elephant?!? Okay, fine. Crow dude fights on pachyderms, got it. It seems a little unlikely to me, but crow dudes are far more likely than SPOILER: Tien being raised by the assassins that killed his entire family. And they didn't know! What, they picked up an orphan that can kill crocodiles, and his family never came up in conversation? That's just stupid. I'm also not a huge fan of the cliffhanger ending. Yes, it sets up the third movie pretty well, but it's not like the story is compelling enough to have you anxiously waiting to see what happens to Tien. I'm just going to assume that he kills many, many bad guys in the next installment. Ong Bak 2: The Beginning isn't going to wow you with a compelling story or graceful wire-fu action. This is a big-budget action choreographer's wet dream, with huge sets and a cast with hundreds of extras. If you can get past how much Tony Jaa looks like Mowgli, this is a very entertaining action movie, brimming with all sorts of mixed martial arts fights. The story left me pretty indifferent, so the cliffhanger ending just made me roll my eyes, but the fighting more than made up for it. This is certainly worth a watch, but it isn't quite as legendary as the promotional posters might lead you to believe.