Bartleby Abroad: Ong Bak 2 raises the bar for martial arts action

23 May

 

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Let’s start simple. Ong Bak 2 kicks ALL kinds of butt. Crocodile, elephant, pirate, ninja, crow-sorcerer–if you are in Thailand and possess a posterior it probably has Tony Jaa’s footprint on it. This is one of the most kinetic, ambitious martial arts films I’ve ever seen. Jaa not only eclipses his previous efforts, but he proves himself to be a very gifted action director.

All of the bizarre stories involving Jaa hiding out in a cave and nearly going crazy cease to matter when basked in the energizing glow of Ong Bak 2’s lush, aggressive vision. I don’t hold any of it against Tony. I nearly lost my mind just watching the freakin’ thing; he’s excused if he lost his making it. By changing the time period, and ramping up the mythological aspects of his Thai setting and his mysterious hero, Jaa has done something unexpected: He’s made the greatest Conan movie we can probably ever expect to see on film.

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The first Ong Bak was a great audience movie; perfect for friendly gatherings, conventions, bar mitzvahs, you name it. The story wasn’t important. We watched as a new action hero was born and we reveled in every obstacle leapt over, every cranium busted by an elbow, and every flaming leg kick connecting with its target. There was, however, plenty of room to grow. The budgetary constraints were obvious. Replaying each action scene from different angles grew tiresome. Jaa was a silent, strong hero, but when he wasn’t in fight mode he had all his scenes stolen by his sidekick, Dirty Balls.

I like that first film a lot, but feel it functions better as a demo reel for what Jaa is capable of than as an actual movie. I’m a bigger fan of The Protector, which was sillier but had more heart. Jaa fighting for his elephant seemed awkward at first, but it gave the movie a center. The elephant added one more shade to Tony’s stoic ass-kicker, and we like our heroes to have layers, even thin ones. Now, there’s Ong Bak 2 which has as much connection to the original film as Protector had, but brings with it a greater technical prowess and a more layered story. 

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The most significant difference that separates Ong Bak 2 from its predecessors is the overall scale of the production. The film takes place in 15th century Thailand and all the money spent shows up on screen. This is one of the most sumptuous looking movies I’ve seen this year. There is a sense of perfectionism in each shot. Every temple, every town, and every river is captured in gorgeous golden-green hues. 

The battles are filmed in a way where we understand the geography and position of the fighters and the punches and kicks they are throwing. The action is breath-taking. Warriors on horseback  ride through fields of flying arrows, and Jaa’s character, Tieng is captured in his childhood by raiders who throw him into a crocodile pit where he must fight his way out to freedom. Both sequences utilize practical fx, and as a result the scenes are almost seamless. I’m not convinced they didn’t let a kid in Thailand wrestle a real crocodile.

 Early in the film, adult Tieng runs across the backs of an elephant herd, making his way to their leader. After sparring on the ground with this elephant, he swings himself up on it, swats it on the head, and forces it to its knees in submission. As Tieng stands there on the elephant, with his dark hair flowing in the wind, we see the rest of the herd bowing down before him. The entire thing has a certain comic-book majesty to it. 

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There is overall, less action in this film than the original Ong Bak. For a long time, Jaa is building this world and the back-story for Tieng. It’s a simple revenge tale, like the original Conan the Barbarian. Tieng’s parents are brutally murdered and he is rescued by pirates whose leader raises him as if he were his own son. When Tieng comes of age, he is placed through a series of trials where he must master different facets and styles of martial arts. The early action scenes display this training and allow Jaa to show us that his skills extend far beyond the world of muy-thai. The later passages follow him as he pursues revenge against the growing forces responsible for his parent’s death.

The tension mounts slowly, until we arrive at the film’s final half hour, which is an extraordinary piece of action filmmaking. There’s a new standard thrown down here. We don’t mind that we have seen maybe one knee to a forehead since the film’s opening. This time, Tony Jaa uses a SWORD. We aren’t talking, parry, parry, thrust. Imagine balletic, complex moves mixed with slashing, clanging metal weapons. I’ve never seen swordfights as exciting as these.  What this man can do with a blade is frightening and astonishing.

Jaa himself is also a trained khon mask dancer, so it isn’t surprising that he brings this into the film as a significant part of Tieng’s background. It’s the one thing that helps soften him. When he returns to find the girl he lost as a youth, he discovers her dancing for his enemy. He joins in too, wearing a mask to hide his identity, and the entire sequence slows down the film’s pace but builds the drama and tension. Then he releases this tension in a fury of kicks, knee-smashes, spear chucking, rope swinging, elephant gymnastics and blade throwing. The adrenaline cherry topping this action sundae is a fight scene atop an elephant with  Tieng battling  a dark shaman-like creature. It’s impressive and I’d wonder how they did it, if I weren’t too engrossed in the film to care.

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There is much I haven’t said about the movie, because primarily, it’s an experience. Ong Bak 2 is a full fledged adventure; its pacing is strong and  its hero possesses enough complexities to keep him central in our focus. As a purely visual experience it has no other live action equal so far this year.

So, what’s the catch? What’s the flaw? Well, it seems like it’s only half a movie. Ong Bak 2 just  ends after only a 111 minutes. Our hero is in a seriously dire straight and just like an old serial, we are told that’s it. More next time. We see him older and bearded, much like a certain Cimmerian, but what happens to him in in his current trial we never see.

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To give you an idea of what’s done in Ong Bak, imagine if Conan the Barbarian ended with Ahnuld finishing his speech to Crom, the warriors of Thulsa Doom bearing down on him, and then it went to black, the narrator stepped in, and asked you to send all your positive thoughts out to Conan, that he might be able to survive this trial. And then we see him there on the throne. No, really. That’s essentially what happens here. It’s kind of frustrating, but it isn’t crippling to the film. After all that has come before, how can it be?

 The ending reflects Buddhist philosophy better than most anything I’ve seen, and it’s a clever strategy for Jaa. Guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li have made movies for years where the stories didn’t matter. They were just showcases. Jaa has made himself a serialized franchise here. He can tell a little bit of this epic story each time, build a character with some depth, and still keep it down to a brisk film that delivers the action fans want. The ending is a sticker at first, but when your singular complaint for a movie is that you want to see more of it, that’s not a terrible thing. Me, I’m ready for Ong Bak 3 right now.

Hey, who am I kidding. I’m ready for Ong Bak 2 again. Get lost Star Wars; Tony Jaa is the only Thai-fighter we need.

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