With Jackie Chan and Jet Li aging and their glorious cinematic careers winding down, Hollywood needs a fresh-faced fighter to fill the void of authentic martial arts films. The industry has been limping along with Jason Statham for too long and, while he’s fun to watch, the fighting feels sterile and manufactured. Tony Jaa could very well be the next martial arts master to sweep the country up in a flurry of kicks and punches and Ong Bak 2: The Beginning is pretty good evidence of that.
Despite having the “2” in the title, it’s hard to imagine Ong Bak 2 as the sequel to Ong Bak since this film seems to have nothing to do with the previous movie. Ong Bak 2 takes place in 15th century Thailand, during a time of political and social upheaval as the ruthless warlord Rajasena (Saranyu Wongkrajang) seeks to conquer all of Asia. One of the many obstacles in his way is Lord Sihadecho (Santisuk Promsiri), so Rajasena sends assassins to eliminate him and his family. Sihadecho’s 10-year-old son, Tien (Tony Jaa), barely escapes with his life only to fall into the hands of bandits, where he learns to fight, steal and kill ruthlessly under the tutelage of Chernung (Sorapong Chatree). At the height of his ability, Tien is asked to become the new bandit leader, but before he can accept, Tien must avenge his family, which leads to discoveries he isn’t prepared to face.
In many ways, Ong Bak 2 resembles your standard “fightal.” A fightal is like a musical, except instead of the characters breaking out in song to express themselves, they break out in fights. Such is the way in Ong Bak 2 where characters fight for extended periods where a stern word or a quick kill would suffice. In fact, the fights last so long that screen time for fight scenes probably takes up the majority of the film. Those craving a good ol’ fashioned brawler first and a satisfying story second won’t be disappointed here. Like other films in the genre, however, Ong Bak 2 suffers from the logistical drawbacks that come from staging complex fights. Some movements are sped up to achieve the pace audiences expect, but here they’re done blatantly and it looks unnatural. Other times, when Tien is fighting several attackers, those not being immediately engaged are forced to “keep busy” by flourishing their weapons until Tien is available to kill them. For some inexplicable reason, the bad guys don’t attack Tien en masse. Instead, they send weak attackers in small groups, special fighters in couples or solo bouts and principal characters in special one-on-one duels. As a bad guy, wouldn’t it make more sense to send everything you have at once instead of letting the good guy pick off your best men one at a time?
Tony Jaa’s physical performance in this film is second to none and he never fails to impress in every scene he’s in. If he’s not leaping from one elephant to the next in a moving heard or kicking the asses of 30 guys in one fight sequence, he’s performing a beautiful, exotic dance just to throw a curve ball at the audience. Jaa’s fighting performance is also brilliant, showcasing his ability to use varied weapons and move fluidly between different styles. The inclusion of Muay Thai boxing gives Jaa’s fighting a unique look and feel that Bourne- and Transporter-weary viewers will find refreshing. Jaa even takes on a bit of drunken boxing, but it’s still a long way off from Jackie Chan’s virtuoso performance.
Jaa’s acting unfortunately leaves something to be desired. He’s rarely emotional and doesn’t speak his lines with conviction. He also can’t hold a long closeup without blinking. It seems like an intentional choice to cut Jaa’s lines down to almost nothing in order to minimize his weak points. American audiences probably won’t mind this aspect though, since the entire film is subtitled.
Ong Bak 2 is Tony Jaa’s third lead role in a major film and also his directorial debut, which may explain why Ong Bak 2 has a little more cinematic appeal. The story is a little thin and doesn’t even resolve itself entirely, which leaves room for a sequel, but plot isn’t why you should watch this film. Watch Ong Bak 2 to witness the beginning of a new era of visceral martial arts movies and the making of a new star. If that isn’t enough, the movie is also entertaining in its own right.