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.