Muay Thai action outshines minimal plot
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning proves that ridiculously awesome and awesomely ridiculous are not interchangeable. Although grand orchestrator Tony Jaa does a striking job with art design and skull-crushing action, the story and one-dimensional characters leave the film soundly in the latter category.
It bites to be an overthrown prince. It burns to be captured as a slave boy. And it really sucks when the bad guy kills your dad. So a kid like Tien (Tony Jaa) is bound to grow up with a few anger issues. Luckily, a bandit king takes him on as a protÃ©gÃ©. This Thai version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves offers Tien a way to settle scores, with as much arm breaking and jaw crunching as possible. Somehow, stampeding elephants and cat women also factor in.
One does not need to have seen 2003â€™s Ong Bak to understand the sequel. The two have nothing in common beyond martial arts, the Thai language and Tony Jaa.
Ong Bak 2 is Jaaâ€™s baby. He co-directs, he produces, he choreographs and he stars in all the fights. But it is a baby in the vein of Frankensteinâ€™s Monster. With gusto Jaa takes the skeleton of Braveheart, the muscle of MTV and the flesh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and hits it with several thousand volts of Muay Thai (a form of hard martial art practiced in Southeast Asian countries).
One watches this movie solely for the fights because perceiving Ong Bak 2 as a powerful, 15th-century Thai epic will only work after several Mai Tai cocktails. The Muay Thai fighting, however, makes films like House of Flying Daggers look like frou-frou water ballets.
Instead of pirouetting through kicks and jabs, Tien breaks faces and rips out jugulars. The fights are over the top and epic but still hover on the edge of reality. The sound design, which captures every wet-kitten squelch and tooth-rattling punch, drags the viewer right into the melee with a bag of popcorn. The climactic fight is something we would only see if the WWE did a hostile takeover of the MMA.
Visually, Ong Bak 2 is a brash, burnished extravaganza. The mix of slow-mo and rapid cuts look as if edited by an MTV staffer with aspirations of artistic grandeur. Bejeweled dancers, bedecked warlords and stampeding elements all lend the film an epic flair. The soundtrack trumpets and cheerleads as shamelessly as the one in Pirates of the Caribbean.
All of this creates a beautiful stage for bloodshed and bone breaking. That is the only reason the film exists. Story and character, abstract concepts that can neither slice flesh or snap femurs, serve only as vehicles to carry Tien to the far earthier realm of face stomping.
Tien has the emotional depth of a tide pool and the story could be cut and pasted from any 14-year-oldâ€™s Next Big Fantasy Epic. Everything is watery: a flashback to a pretty girl fills the romance quota, a few scenes with the bandit king give us all our heroic tenderness and a treacherous general counts as the plot twist.
One might argue that Ong Bak 2 is all about the fights, and the money dumped into the visuals is just to make them cooler. But any story beyond an uninspired Dungeons and Dragons game might have made us care.
The film pulls off massive fights with minimal CGI and nary a wire, but the lack of emotional attachment keeps the film behind a glass wall. No amount of rousing music and splattering blood can break it. Even an action movie needs a good story or else it is little more than a kidâ€™s afternoon with his G.I. Joes.
Ong Bak 2 is unlikely to go down as the definitive Thai epic. The story is just too shallow and the characters too bland to make a lasting impression.
But it is entertaining. The final fight is a brilliant work of choreography that will have anyone seeing why the Romans loved their gladiators. And Tony Jaa, when it comes to staging fights, is his own kind of artist.
View Ong Bak 2 only as a grand piece of gladiatorial combat with waves of enemies, hundreds of kinds of weapons and no meaningful conclusion â€” then you wonâ€™t leave the theater feeling like your intelligence was insulted.