Here’s a reaction sure to be popular at “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” viewings near and far: huh? Clarity is in short supply here for this unexpected prequel, an abstract action bend that has no time for coherency. Appreciate the feature as more of a silent film adventure and it’s a blast, furthering the curious career of Tony Jaa, who steps behind the camera to co-direct this often exhilarating but supremely baffling martial arts picture.
Hundreds of years ago, a young boy named Tiens (Tony Jaa) was the son of a powerful nobleman, who pushed his son to learn the art of dance over the boy’s choice of martial arts. When trouble invades Tiens’s village and his parents are killed, the boy takes off into the jungle, only to be captured by slave traders. Proving himself useful in a fight, Tiens is trained by his captors to become a powerful warrior, joining a team of pirates as they tear across the land. Losing himself to immorality, Tiens struggles to sort out his past, targeting the new king for death. I think.
2003’s “Ong-Bak” was Jaa’s debutante ball, introducing the young limb-snapper to a global audience blown away by his incredible Muay Thai skills, making the picture more of a martial arts demonstration reel than a feature film. Still, the limber eruption was gold, developed to a finer point of melodrama in Jaa’s berserk follow-up, “The Protector.” While plagued with more behind-the-scenes problems than you could shake a broken femur at, “Ong Bak 2” has been seen to completion (more or less), and while the story is a blur, the action remains in a state of euphoria.
A rather involved period piece, Jaa (along with co-director Panna Rittikrai) angles for a romantic mood of royal betrayals and stolen innocence. The film is gorgeously shot and imagined, with sweeping Thai vistas and hefty set pieces of destruction, acting as an ideal catalyst for the eventual path of revenge. “Ong Bak 2” is a far more ambitious film than its predecessor, purposely wiggling away from modern day heroics to set a primal tone, permitting the action a more volatile backdrop to work with. The film isn’t completely incomprehensible, but it jumps around needlessly, losing sight of proper velocity. Jaa doesn’t want to offer his fans junk food, and that’s a respectable goal; however, “Ong Bak 2” is a thinly constructed film, with a few changes in focus crippling the intended spark of spiritual punishment.
As much as Jaa tries to inch away from a straightforward routine of action beats with this picture, his way of the fist is something truly magical. “Ong Bak 2” lets loose a few times during the show, the best being Tiens and his severe takedown of a swarm of marketplace baddies. The Muay Thai moves, with blunt leg kicks and soaring bodies, remain a perfect martial art for the medium, displaying an unreal splendor beneath the bone-cracking mayhem. The picture isn’t wall-to-wall action as hoped, but when it does decide to crack its knuckles and start rumbling (the swordplay is equally as wild as the hand-to-hand action), the fight sequences are as thrilling as anything Jaa has committed to the screen before.
It’s been a few years since Tony Jaa last made a cinematic appearance, so I’ll accept the often baffling execution of “Ong Bak 2” (which ends with a strange cliffhanger for the next film) as long as it keeps Jaa moving forward in the industry. He’s a talented guy, even revealing a strong visual sense here that needs some more development, but feels only a few films way from greatness. Messy, but always convincing, “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” offers Thai cinema basics with the proper Jaa trauma, and it’s a delight to have him back.