This Is It; The House of the Devil; Ong Bak 2
Ong Bak 2 hardly the Thai Braveheart it struggles to be
by Matt "the" Gronke
EXPECTATIONS: Tony Jaa kicks butt in the only way that Tony Jaa can. In Ong Bak 2, Tony Jaa will return as the orphan who kicks butts for 90 straight minutes. Plot? Fuck plots. This is all about butt-kicking Muay Thai action, you pussy. Wear a Tap Out shirt to the opening screening and receive one free reach-around from your sparring partner.
REALITY: Martial arts films should be like pornographic films: Mostly action with a few strands of dialogue to move the plot along. Include too much exposition, and viewers will lose interest quickly. Ong Bak 2: The Beginning suffers largely from this problem, and many others, and that's why it's an awful film.
To start, let's examine the title of the film: Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. This is a film whose bipolar title indicates that it's both a sequel and a prequel (to ease your confusion, it's a prequel). Right off the bat, we can see we're headed for failure. And if you were thinking that this was somehow related to the character you saw in Ong Bak, you're a fucking idiot! This film has absolutely nothing to do with the original; instead, it tells the story of an orphan in the 15th century, about 500 years before the original. If this were the same character, that would make Ting some sort of Muy Thai Highlander, which would catapult this franchise into the stratosphere of awesome. Alas, that's not the case.
The first twenty minutes of the film consists of useless exposition on the background of the character, where we learn about his horrible circumstances that lead him to learn the art of kicking ass. No one fucking cares, and this could have easily been taken up with a scrolling intertitle at the beginning of the film to alleviate our boredom from having to sit through things like drama. This is a martial arts film, not Steel Magnolias. I should send over my copy of The Running Man so Tony Jaa can see how to properly gloss over annoying plot details:
"By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources, and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the state and a sadistic game show called The Running Man has become the most popular program in history. All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground. When high-tech gladiators are not enough to suppress the people's yearning for freedom, more direct methods become necessary."
Now that's how you introduce a goddamn action film. The audience gets briefed in 30 seconds, and we can go straight to the ass-kicking and name-taking. Instead, we learn about how an orphan by the name of Tien gets rescued by a group of Muy Thai outlaws, and they all decide to teach him different martial arts and weapon skills. Once they're finished, Tien can kick almost everyone's ass in the film. I say almost, because he finally meets his match at a certain point in the film, a villain so evil, so bad-ass that he comes equipped with, and this is completely true, a cloth-based copy of the helmet worn by The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There's also a love interest in the film who serves absolutely no purpose in the larger story and is therefore completely forgettable, but somehow a third of the film is devoted to Tien's relationship with her. Why, Tony Jaa, why? As Sun Tzu famously wrote, "Make war, not love, motherfucker."
Awful plot aside, the fight scenes in this film were nothing short of fantastic. The choreography is amazing, the stunts are spectacular, and the blood-soaked violence is aplenty. Somewhat bizarrely, the fight scenes are like a video-game, where each man Tien goes up against has a different weapon or fighting style. One man fights him with a sabre, the other with claw-like weapons, the next one with a dagger, and so on. This doesn't take away from the action, but it was amusing to guess which gimmick the next mook would have.
If this film had simply been a compendium of the fight scenes with a vague plot of retribution or revenge stringing it together, it would have been great. Instead, star and director Tony Jaa attempts a historical epic narrative and fails spectacularly. This may not have been entirely his fault, considering he disappeared from the production set for two months complaining of issues between him and the studio, and the same studio eventually forced him to cut the film short, giving it an incredibly laughable cliffhanger ending. Let's hope Ong Bak 3 dispenses with any delusions of grandeur.