Tony Jaa unveils his own brand of mixed martial arts fighting in ONG BAK 2: THE BEGINNING, a sequel in name only to his hit 2003 production which put Jaa and Thailand’s action film industry on the world map. Set nearly 500 years in the past, this gritty and action-packed revenger delivers more of Jaa’s patented elbow and knee-slamming Muay Thai fighting with the inclusion of Thai Khon dancing, a variety of other martial arts styles and weapons handling techniques from around the world, and some truly incredible stunt work involving live elephants. As is Jaa’s trademark, it’s all performed magnificently sans wires, computer effects or stunt doubles. As Jaa’s first directorial effort, aided by his mentor Panna Rittikrai and producer Prachya Pinkaew, the film delivers Jaa’s most intense and impressive fighting action yet but a complex and underdeveloped plot and fractured, non-engaging direction leaves much to be desired.
The film’s core plot is actually quite good, although its non-linear presentation on film is unnecessarily bewildering and lacking in details needed to draw audiences in. For the sake of clarity I will attempt to summarily piece the story together in a more logical fashion.
The year is 1431 and the place is the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya where a power-hungry Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrachang) is pushing the kingdom to expand its control of neighboring territories. Caught up in this growing struggle is a righteous nobleman’s son named Tien who is left in the care of Bua (Nirut Sirijunya), a master of Khon dancing. It is here that Tien meets his childhood sweetheart, Bua’s adopted daughter Pim.
Not long after, a loyal soldier rescues Tien from a kidnapping plot but then takes him straight to his parents’ home which has just been attacked by Lord Rajasena, his army and his loyal, black-clad assassins who subsequently slaughter Tien’s parents. In his grief, Tien draws unwanted attention and barely escapes, although his foolish protector isn’t so lucky.
The problem here is that it’s never really clear in the film why Tien’s parents needed to die or why Bua was able to provide Tien safe haven during a time of political turmoil. According to press notes for ONG BAK 2, Tien’s father (played by Santisuk Promsiri) was a high-ranking soldier in the Ayutthaya Kingdom who was used by Lord Rajasena as a scapegoat to cover the lord’s assassination of a governor. Because of his status as a dance trainer, Bua may have been protected by the King, thus forcing Rajasena to resort to trickery to get his hands on Tien.
This part of Tien’s childhood is actually dumped into flashbacks after we had been first introduced to a slightly older Tien as he comes under the care and tutelage of martial arts-trained bandits.
After escaping from Lord Rajasena following his parent’s death, Tien is captured by slave traders and forced to fight for his life in a crocodile pit. This time he’s rescued by Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), the bearded bandit king of Garuda Wing Cliff and its outlaw inhabitants. It is here that Tien is exposed to martial arts from around the world as Chernang has attracted a variety of foreign martial arts experts and illusionists and allows Tien to train with each of them.
This is a key part of the film because it shows how Tien, now a grown man played by Jaa, has developed the broad-ranging grounding in martial arts that forms the basis for a real martial art that Jaa and Rittikrai developed for this film. It’s called Natayuth and combines Khon dancing with martial arts styles that include Thai boxing, Chaiya Thai boxing, Korat Thai boxing, Lopburi Thai boxing, kung fu, ninjitsu, and taifudo which is a combination of Aikido, kung fu, judo, and Muay Thai.
Some of Tien’s trainers display skills in kendo, iron-wire kung fu (which is an advanced form of Hung Fist) and grappling, presumably representative of judo. This martial arts premise also allows Jaa to dabble in a wide range of weapons handling techniques ranging from Japanese swordsmanship to the use of China’s three-section staff and rope dart.
Jaa’s use of all of these techniques is remarkable for two reasons and neither includes any great degree of proficiency or depth. What’s remarkable is how effortlessly he effectively transitions between distinct techniques, often within a single set of movements. Also impressive is Jaa’s consistent ability to telegraph intense power. It doesn’t matter whether he’s kneeing someone in the chest, performing Drunken boxing or engaging in a set of traditional kung fu sparring forms. In every example, Jaa sells his movements like no other by bringing the same intense physicality and direct contact he brought to Muay Thai into his other fighting movements. But it’s not just Jaa. It is the ability of Jaa, his stunt team, the stylized cinematography, and lean post-production editing that all come together to make the fight work in this film some of the most visually intense and effective displays of true mixed martial arts yet committed to film.
Despite the tremendous strengths of the film’s fighting action, it is greatly hindered by poor direction that keeps the audience locked out of what should be intensely emotional and exciting sequences. Like the original ONG BAK, action sequences here too often feel like demo reels lacking in substantive character development or plot advancement. No example is better than Jaa’s amazing series of leaps upon the backs of a herd of roving elephants. The sequence is truly unbelievable and unique to cinema. Like many of Jackie Chan’s incredible stunts during his prime, we may never see anyone again perform this feat without wires or green screen the way that Jaa did. And yet I look at this scene and wonder what purpose it serves in the film. Of course, one could say the same of some of Chan’s stunt sequences but he was rarely as obvious. It’s understood that Jaa and Rittikrai built this film around the simple premise of having Jaa use different martial arts styles. There’s nothing wrong with that but when it comes time to build those other ingredients the martial arts still needs to serve the story, especially when you’re a world-class performer making what should be A-list action films for any market.
The latter part of ONG BAK 2 is very messy with the narrative hurriedly bouncing around over gaping holes in plot development. Given the ambitious nature of the film and relative size of the budget, it’s pretty embarrassing and clearly shows a breakdown in direction. Jaa was coached heavily on his acting for this film and while it could be argued that he did indeed project greater emotion and depth than in his two previous films, he still lacked the proper coaching on how to direct action when it came to bridging it with the rest of the film. This is where ONG BAK 2 fails as a well-rounded production yet still gets by as a pure revenge-driven martial arts movie.
Jaa’s character is driven to get back against two main adversaries. The lesser of the two is the slave driver who forced Tien to fight a crocodile. With his large frame, wide jaw and deep voice, the actor reminds me of a Thai version of Richard Kiel who played “Jaws” in several late ’70s-era James Bond films. This guy is representative of the memorable characters Jaa tries to fill his movie with and I’ll give him credit for making the effort. Fellow Thai action star Dan Chupong makes a late, surprise entry as an intriguing and enigmatic villain likely to play a more significant role in ONG BAK 3. Jaa also scores with Chernang, who becomes something of a father figure to Tien. Sorapong Chatree, of QUEENS OF LANGKASUKA fame, has terrific presence on screen as this noble outlaw leader and his relationship to Tien becomes more satisfyingly complex as the film progresses.
Tien’s other main adversary is, of course, Lord Rajasena but for being the main villain he’s out of the picture far too much, as are his chief subordinates. Something Jaa fails to do is provide the necessary build up and anticipation to a clash between Tien and Rajasena. The big fight at the end that should provide an invested payoff feels somehow hollow and near anticlimactic. It’s not just the poor build up and lack of antagonist development; it’s also the awkward way in which Jaa decides to end the film on a cliffhanger. By the end it feels like we’ve just hit the pause button midway through a really long movie where we’re still just getting to know the main characters.
In watching an earlier action scene where Tien leads his fellow bandits in an assault on a caravan, it struck me that A-list Hollywood filmmakers would have never allowed for such an elaborate sequence that indulges in so many different fighting moves, especially given that the sequence’s only contribution to the plot is that it shows how Tien is now aggressively leading the bandits in the field and has grown up to become an effective warrior. While the composition of this fight, as with most of the others, is exceptional its length becomes a problem in that it doesn’t forward the plot much yet it takes up time that is clearly needed to explain more of the story and characters. I appreciate that the ONG BAK crew are trying to build better stories around Tony Jaa’s abilities but this still counts as a misfire.
Briefly looking at the rest of the production, Sahamongkol has put together an excellent period film that is a feast for the eyes from exotic costuming and vivid, earthy art direction to attractive outdoor locales and realistic bloodletting. DP Nattawut Kittikhun has surpassed his quality lensing on ONG BAK and THE PROTECTOR with cinematography that helps bring the action to vivid life in consistently creative yet often understated ways.
In many ways, ONG BAK 2 has the makings of a truly great martial arts film. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t match the quality of Tony Jaa’s fight work. If that’s all it took, this would be a near-masterpiece. Having watched behind-the-scenes footage revealing the complexity of such an ambitious production and Tony Jaa’s meltdown back in 2008 it’s clear to me that Jaa took on too much. He was the star, the action choreographer and first-time director. He was performing potentially deadly stunts that could have resulted in being trampled to death by elephants. In addition, he was developing a new martial art style by studying established styles he had less familiarity with and was getting coached on acting for the first time. Who wouldn’t have had a meltdown under those conditions? The fact that Jaa was able to Chiba-up (see forums for explanation) and see ONG BAK 2 through to become as entertaining as it is may be a testament to the strength, willpower and versatility of Tony Jaa. I don’t care if the guy cried on TV. He’s still a beast and despite its flaws ONG BAK 2 provides ferocious fighting action that sets a new standard for the martial arts genre at a time when other filmmakers and actors, save for Donnie Yen and a handful of up-and-comers, are increasingly lowering standards. You want real, full-impact martial arts screen action? Tony Jaa is still the man to deliver.REVIEW: Ong Bak 2 - The Beginning (2008),
Dan Chupong • Iron Wire Fist • Muay Thai • Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (2008) • Tony Jaa