By Todd Gilchrist (reprinted from 9/23/09)
Cinematically speaking, there may be nothing worse than when an action star or purveyor of thrills starts taking himself too seriously. Such a transformation almost invariably begets a personal crusade, which often takes the form of a vanity project, and usually turns out about as well as The Quest did for Jean-Claude Van Damme, or On Deadly Ground did for Steven Seagal. Thai martial artist Tony Jaa launched his career with the original Ong Bak, and after that film and its superior follow-up, The Protector, made him an international sensation, he apparently started believing his own hype: Jaa not only co-directed Ong Bak 2, his latest film, but conceived it as the ultimate Thai adventure, reinforcing his own legend with a self-aggrandizing historical epic that somehow proves that you can actually make a movie without a plot – which unfortunately but perhaps predictably isn't a compliment.
Ostensibly a prequel to the original film, Ong Bak 2 chronicles a series of fairly awesome fights that Jaa's character Tien gets into en route to becoming a martyred national hero. There's some back story about the betrayal of Tien's parents and his training by guerrilla fighters in the jungles of Thailand, but for the most part the film is front-loaded with one scene after another where he beats the bloody pulp out of any and all comers. Meanwhile Jaa's mentor and co-director Panna Rittikrai documents the action with a surprising, satisfying lyricism, reminiscent of Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers, but it seems obvious they're more interested in throat-ripping than truly capturing the poetry of Thai martial arts.
As one might expect, Jaa is a self-professed student of all kinds of martial arts movies, and as such, an obvious source of inspiration for Tien is Chinese legend Wong Fei Hung, who has been fictionalized in countless films including Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China and Iron Monkey among many others (in fact, he is considered the most portrayed character in movie history). But whether or not audiences are equally aware of the rich and expansive legacy of kung-fu cinema, there's an deep familiarity to virtually all of the scenes in the film, partially because they run on so much longer than necessary, but also because action filmmaking has pilfered so thoroughly from these sacred cinematic texts that virtually anyone who has seen a mainstream thriller in the last decade or so is already well-versed in the various forms and techniques of martial arts on display.
Moreover, Ong Bak 2 is the most relentlessly conventional sort of movie mythmaking: the rich legacy of English-language historical biopics notwithstanding, there's almost no one who isn't familiar with some kind of story about someone overcoming adversity, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and becoming something more than they or anyone else thought was possible. That said, the statute of limitations on established storytelling forms in cinema certainly hasn't been reached, much less by or because of this film, but there's just nothing new, original or unique about Tien's "story" that will draw in audiences.
On the other hand, there are so many disparate parts of Ong Bak 2 that work by themselves that it's difficult to discourage even fans of the genre from checking it out. The cinematography and the choreography are top notch – the opening sequence is shockingly gorgeous, and there's an epic scene where Jaa fights dozens of opponents before falling off of a pile of rocks onto a pile of spears; also, according to my notes, there are also "fire bees," which sounds utterly cool even though I can't remember for the life of me what that means. Not to mention that despite its deficiencies, it's almost guaranteed that his career will continue long into the future, and Tony Jaa will make many better movies. But ultimately, Ong Bak 2 is evidence that too much fighting and not enough plot really can be a problem, and maybe more importantly, that action stars probably shouldn't get too carried away by their commercial success