(Originally published on In Review Online.)
From the very start it is clear that no expense was spared and no detail neglected in Tony Jaa’s magnum opus actioneer, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. The credits brighten and fade in ghostly elegance against the backdrop of aestheticized weapons and idols, opening to a chase on horseback that is visually antiquated in sepia but adored with the lush green of the jungle. The arrows sail and the hooves fly in adrenaline inducing beauty. Unfortunately, Ong Bak 2 never rallies any deeper than this type of superficial gloss and physical spectacle for mild but very muddled entertainment.
The film opens in 1421 during a familial struggle for power in the newly formed Ayutthaya Kingdom. Young Tien watches as his mother and father are assassinated and escapes through the jungle only to be captured by slave traders. When the stubborn youngster refuses to cooperate, he is thrown into a pit with an alligator in an impossible fight to the death. As one might expect, the spirited youth kills the alligator with the help of a knife tossed into the pit by a by standing admirer Chernang. Chernang, king of all the bandits, sees potential in Tien and takes him on as his adopted son. With the passage of time comes the obligatory martial arts student montage dipicting the journey from young novice to adult master. Eventually succeeding his adoptive father as bandit king, Tien slowly gains his thirst to avenge his father in an all out army of one battle against a (not so) mysterious enemy.
After the moderate but formidable international success of Ong Bak (aka Muay Thai Warrior) and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector), it seemed that Thailand might have its very own Jackie Chan. With amazing physical talent and creative muster, Jaa was poised to bring Thai film to a broad based international audience. When he signed on to make his directorial debut with the prequel to Ong Bak, sparks were already flying. The media couldn’t help but manifest public anticipation for the film by blowing production problems way out of proportion. When Jaa slunked off into the jungle, literally, and disappeared for two months, you could hardly blame him. When he returned, a cloud of doubt hung over the entire project, and for good reason.
Most martial arts films can survive and even thrive on a very simple, if not predictable story as long as the fighting remains inspired and the actors charismatic. This is exactly how Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the numerous actors before them preserved long and successful careers. Ong Bak 2 is certainly simple and the hand-to-hand combat is plentiful, but Tony Jaa fails to carry the film as an actor or director. Littered with obtuse flashbacks and incongruent plotting, it is a perplexing mess of themes and tones. The result is a rambling series of vignettes and absurd representations of warrior bravado that never engages the audience from one scene to the next. Taming a herd of elephants, fighting a tiger demon lady, and displaying various styles of martial arts feels like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking.
If you are looking for specific continuity between Ong Bak (set in the present) and Ong Bak 2, you may have to wait until Ong Bak 3—already announced—for clarification. That is, if anyone has the patience for a third installment.