It's been 5 years since I reviewed Ong-Bak, discussing my love for martial arts in all shapes and sizes, from The Master Bruce Lee, to that Aikido buffalo Steven Seagal. Back then I'd just discovered a new ass-kicking genius, Tony Jaa. He was a tough young Thai boxer who combined the brutality of Bruce Lee with the insane stunts of Jackie Chan. And Ong-Bak was a low budget, no plot, but extremely memorable debut martial arts action film. It really did showcase Jaa as the next best thing in terms of martial arts: a fast-moving, elbow-pounding, knee-in-your-face kind of guy. Sure, he might have needed a little refinement if he wanted to broach a wider audience, but Ong-Bak was a great start.
So what happened to him? Five years after his tremendous debut and he's done a couple of reasonably successful movies (The Warrior King went down well but still drew comments about being too much like Ong-Bak) but nothing really to give him to the acclaim - and fame - that he perhaps deserves. Maybe it comes down to the age-old language prejudice that effectively prevents stars from really reaching stardom when they can't do English-language movies in Hollywood or perhaps Jaa just doesn't have enough charisma to pull off a movie that relies on anything much more than his butt-kicking skills. I mean, Jackie Chan was not just a ridiculously fast, crazy-stunt-capable little guy, but he was also quite charming and engaging - more than enough to take the lead, particularly in those great buddy-buddy team-up series' Rush Hour and Shanghai Knights/Noon. Even Jet Li managed to chip away until he got into Hollywood. Jaa's got the moves, but does he have anything more, or are we going to see Ong-Bak sequels every few years ad infinitum?
We're in ancient Thailand, and Tien is the son of a murdered lord, who escapes vicious slave traders to be taught and trained by the leader of a group of guerrilla fighters. As he grows to adulthood, he learns the various martial arts known within the group, and becomes a formidable warrior. But when he reaches his full potential, he decides that it is time to return to wreak bloody vengeance upon both the brutal traders who enslaved him and the evil warlord who killed his father - even if it means going through an Army to get to him.
In the States, the film was somewhat oxymoronically called Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. The title itself makes it clear that this is a prequel, and yet the number would indicate a sequel. Confused? Well, I suppose the Studios wanted to make it clear that this was a new film that fans had not seen, and was a film not to be confused with Ong Bak: Thai Warrior. Ah well, in the UK we got just Ong Bak: The Beginning, sans nonsensical number. To make matters worse, it's only ostensibly that this film has something to do with the other Ong Bak movie, as it actually set in ancient Thailand and not modern times. The fact that the lead characters share the same name is the only tenuous connection. Well, that and the promise that Ong Bak 3 (Really? That makes even less sense as a title) is going to 'come full circle'.
The second point to note is that what we get here is the Theatrical Cut. There is indeed a Luc Besson-commissioned 'faster cut' which is almost ten minutes shorter, but that is only available as an HD extra/alternative on the US Blu-ray release. I don't think we're really missing anything by not having the shorter version of an already short movie.
So, ignoring the fact that the Studios appear to be just cashing in on the franchise name of Jaa's only hit (and messing with the editing in the process) - and that the film should have released this as an entirely independent movie in and of its own right - Ong Bak: The Beginning is still basically made for the same purposes as Thai Warrior, only with a significantly bigger budget and epic setting. It is still a vague narrative - better than its predecessor but nothing that we have not seen before - and although it has some half-hearted attempts at characterisation, it barely holds together as just about enough of an excuse to watch Tony Jaa do his thing for an hour and a half. In fact, he doesn't even get started till about halfway through the movie, but the latter half is so damn kick-ass that it is almost forgivable.
It's difficult not to justify this movie's existent just with its monumental fight scenes: seeing Jaa going to town on an Army of warriors (and there are some great tributes to classics of the genre, like Drunken Master and Game of Death). But, these days, people expect more. In fact, people would happily accept less (i.e. the first Ong Bak movie) as well, but it's the in-between that just doesn't sit well. Dressing up Tony Jaa's fighting in a significantly sub-par Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style period epic, audiences are left twiddling their thumbs and whiling away their time waiting for the fight scenes. The story isn't substantial or original enough to justify any cerebral activity whatsoever. And Jaa (at least in his adult form) doesn't do much until he is trained and ready to go.
To compound things, the story ends on a cliff-hanger. The production history of the movie is fairly mottled, with plenty of delays and budget problems leaving the story effectively too long to tell in one segment. The trouble is - there really is no reason. If they just didn't waste so long getting started (and building the background unnecessarily), they could have just told the history in flashbacks, and given us a much more consistently action-orientated affair. Instead, it became a 2-parter (which is supposed to tie into the first movie, no doubt in a contrived, pointless manner) and that is becoming more and more of a trend recently. Whilst it's an understandable move for epic biopics like Che and Mesrine, Ong Bak really doesn't deserve it. Who cares about a cliffhanger really? It's just a patent excuse to further cash in on the franchise name.
Jaa himself is still an acting moron. And somebody needs to get him a stylist before too many people mistake him for a girl (of course I'm saying that out of the range of his elbows). Watching the fight scenes is captivating because they are so brilliantly choreographed, so brutal, so unbelievable. But as soon as they are over, Jaa has nothing to interest the viewer. He needs to take some acting lessons and change his image, but I'm still not sure that will change the fact that he just doesn't have the charisma of counterparts like Jackie Chan (or even Steven bloody Seagal). I remember watching Bruce Lee's son, Brandon Lee, in the low budget Rapid Fire and thinking that he had his father's moves and a serious chunk of charisma to boot. After his performance in The Crow, I thought he had serious potential, and it would have been amazing to see what would have become of him. Tony Jaa is the ambassador of Thai martial arts, potentially of mainstream Thai movies full stop, but - at the moment - with a lack of output (he's made 2 movies in the last 7 years since Ong-Bak, and at 33 these are surely the prime years of his action film life), no acting skills, and no natural charm, I just don't see how he is going to get the success that he truly deserves. And I fear that we're just going to see Ong-Bak sequels until the next martial arts master (with a better promo campaign) hits the scene.
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