TIFF 09: ONG BAK 2 Review
[While Tony Jaa's Ong Bak 2 finally made it through its tortuous production process and arrived in Thai theaters to a hugely positive response - a response that has already led to a third Ong Bak film being confirmed - there are some dissenting voices out there. One of the unconvinced is regular ScreenAnarchy reader - now regular contributor - James Marsh, who originally contributed the review below nearly a year ago.]
Thailand, 1431. Lord Rajsena is running amok in northern Thailand in a bid to take over the whole kingdom. His fearsome army rampages through the jungles killing everyone in its path, including Lord Sidhadeco, a well-respected General, and his wife. Traumatised by seeing his parents slaughtered, young Tien flees, but is captured and forced to wrestle a crocodile by vicious slave traders. The wise and sympathetic Chernang, seeing a flicker of promise under the matted hair of the young lad, helps him escape and takes Tien under his wing. Years pass and Tien (Tony Jaa) is trained in all manner of weird and wonderful martial art techniques, as well as how to run across the backs of stampeding elephants, make them sit and roll over and other cool stuff. He is even taught how to kill, which according to Chernang, is the final step to becoming a great leader. Once Tien has proved his physical and mental prowess, Chernang hands over leadership of the clan, and Tien embarks on his mission to track down Lord Rajsena and beat the crap out of him, and lots of other people too.
The production of Ong Bak 2 has been fraught with drama and controversy. After Tony Jaa fell out with Prachya Pinkaew, architect of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong, the films that brought the star to the attention of the martial arts world, he took on the directorial reins of this supposed prequel himself. There were stories of financiers pulling out, the film going well over budget and the whole production grinding to a halt for two months after Jaa went AWOL - apparently retreating to meditate after the stress got too much for him. But the finished product has finally made it to cinema screens, breaking box office records on its release in Thailand. However, the truth be told, Ong Bak 2 is a complete train wreck of a film. Jaa's character stalks through the mud and rain like a deranged psychotic Mowgli, tearing a path through an endless stream of gurning, hysterical adversaries with little sense of motivation beyond blind rage.
Told through a series of flashbacks, the first hour of the film is baffling and rather nonsensical, before finally settling down to become little more than a string of bone-crunching showdowns. Now, martial arts films, more than most other genres, can get by on the flimsiest of storylines and be all the better for it, but until the final reel, Ong Bak 2 threatens to alienate and bewilder its audience, many of whom want to see little more than a few decent punch-ups.
Beyond the casting of its lead character, the film has nothing whatsoever to do with the original Ong-Bak, and is in fact set 600 years previous to the events of that film. In truth it does feature a plethora of fighting styles and numerous opportunities for Jaa to show them off, but the film lacks an assured directorial hand to confidently stage the arrogant, crowd-stopping set-pieces that made Jaa's previous efforts so spectacular. Acclaimed action-director Panna Rittikrai, who choreographed those earlier outings, is credited as co-director alongside Jaa, but his artistry is lost amid the mud and blood, the choppy camera work and saturated visuals, making Ong Bak 2 feel like Rambo without guns.
It is not giving anything away to state that the film is open-ended, hinting at a possible sequel as much as it betrays a panicked editing process without the full co-operation of its star/director. Sadly, however, the film fails to inspire any sense of excitement in its audience, nor curiosity to know what will happen next. In fact, the only real question left in the balance is whether Tony Jaa will ever be allowed to direct another film again - and for the greater good of all involved, especially Jaa himself, one can only hope the answer is a resounding no.
Review by James Marsh
- Tony Jaa
- Panna Rittikrai
- Tony Jaa (story)
- Panna Rittikrai (story)
- Ek Iemchuen (screenplay)
- Nonthakorn Thaweesuk (screenplay)
- Tony Jaa
- Sarunyu Wongkrachang
- Sorapong Chatree
- Primorata Dejudom