Director: Tony Jaa (ทัชชกร ยีรัมย์) and Panna Rittikrai
Cast: Tony Jaa and Sorapong Chatree (สรพงษ์ ชาตร)
Ong-Bak hit action fans like a lead pipe to the knees. While the story was a straightforward search-and-retrieve/tournament fighter with uninteresting (and frankly pointless) sidestories involving drugs and prostitution, the film was an unabashed showcase for the remarkable talents of Tony Jaa. In other words, stuff the story. This film is about Jaa pounding the everliving hell out of faceless thugs using his elbows, feet, knees, and nearby blunt instruments. Was it a good film? Absolutely not. But it was diveriting enough to signal a new course in action cinema and grab a fair amount of international recognition for New Thai Cinema. Unfortunately for Jaa, he followed it up with an even worse film in The Protector (Tom Yum Goong), notable for countless stupidities such as:
- transsexual villain
- linear, video game-like structure
- annoying cop friend whose supposedly “fluid” English is brain-gratingly bad
- Johnny and his amazing pants
- a bevy of BIG ASS wrestlers
- they hammer tossed a baby elephant!!
- Jaa’s dialogue consists of either, “Korn!!” or “Where is my elephant??”
- the X-Treme biker gang
So now that Ong-Bak 2 is out, will it be able to redeem the preceding stupidity? Read on to find out.
When we last left our hero, he… oh wait, this isn’t a sequel. Nor is it a prequel! In fact, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Ong-Bak. A sequel in name only, Ong-Bak 2 finds Jaa in a very Conan-like scenario. When his family is slaughtered by evil bastard Lord Rajaseena, young Tien is kidnapped by slave traders and forced to do dangerous things, like fight crocodiles in a mud pit. Lucky for him, he is rescued by the Pha Beek Krut, a sort of pirate/guerilla group that takes him in, teaches him an assortment of martial arts, and does not force him to wrestle with man-eating, aquatic reptiles. Under the guidance of Cher Nung (Sorapong Chatree), Tien (now as an adult played by Tony Jaa) quickly turns in to the most dangerous warrior in the area (the man can run along the backs of stampeding elephants, for crying out loud) and uses his abilities to hunt down the slave traders and avenge his family’s death.
As with other New Thai action films, the story simply isn’t important as its portrayed, so long as a simple chain of events exists to set our hero in motion and provide him with plenty of fodder. And while Jaa (and Rittikrai) tries to give the film a greater sense of gravitas, eschewing the awkward humor of preceding films for stronger violence and more emotional drama, the result is still a poorly developed narrative that feels every bit as perfunctory as in Ong-Bak and The Protector. He knows that his audience wants to see some crazy action, but unlike Jackie Chan or Jet Li, he is unable to make us care about the characters in the midst of said action. And for that, he will always be a mediocre actor and director at best. The physicality is there, but the charisma is non-existent.
All of this may sound like I detest Thai cinema, especially when combined with my review for Chocolate, but that is simply not true. What I detest is that this new crop of action films hides behind the defense of, “it’s just an action film, it’s only supposed to be entertaining.” Yes, I understand that physical action has been and still is instrumental in cross-cultural entertainment, but when I look at all of these Thai action films, it’s clear they’re going for so much more. Ong-Bak focused to an extent on prostitution and drug addiction, The Protector condemned animal cruelty, Chocolate attempted in heart-wrenching fashion to push the idea of family togetherness, and Ong-Bak 2 is all about trust and betrayal. So it’s clear that Jaa was attempting to make a compelling narrative when crafting Ong-Bak 2, otherwise he wouldn’t withhold the majority of the action scenes for the last 20 minutes of the film. We’re well beyond any sense of nationalism or cultural protectionism (see my review for Chocolate), but that doesn’t mean these films are not trying, the problem is that they routinely end up as total failures. Just take a look at the following clip:
Looks great! The problem is that this doesn’t impact the story at all. At least in a film such as Drunken Master, when it shows Jackie Chan go through torturous training, his response to his teacher’s methods help to define him as a character. And when he learns the martial arts of the eight drunken gods, the film culminates in his using them in combat. What you have in Ong-Bak 2 is amazing physicality, but it is no more than a display of abilities. It doesn’t advance the story and it certainly doesn’t connect us with Jaa’s character. Judging by the finished film and reports that Jaa apparently went crazy during filming and disappeared for a two month stretch, he and the other filmmakers were in over their heads as this sort of warrior-king mythology fizzles out in half-assed ideas and a pointlessly ambiguous ending that NECESSITATES a sequel, not because there is a logical continuation to the story, but because the film itself has ZERO ending. It’s as if the filmmakers ran out of money or ideas and said, “You know, let’s end it here. We’ll finish with vague narration about how the story goes on or something stupid and dump it in theaters.” Seriously, it’s that abrupt. So to all those who say or imply that films such as this are supposed to be stupid, I refuse to believe that action cinema is synonymous with brainless cinema. You may like your Transformers, but I’ll hold out hope for more films like T2: Judgment Day. And to Tony Jaa, I say this – dude, learn to crack a smile every now and then. You’re only human.