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Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

dir: Panna Rittikrai, Tony Jaa
[img_assist|nid=1140|title=This poster only barely captures the insanity of the fighting involved|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=600]
You could be forgiven for thinking that this movie was a sequel or even a prequel to Tony Jaa’s debut Ong Bak. I mean, that’s what 2 usually stands for in these circumstances. Having watched both flicks, I can’t really see any point of intersection except in the fact that Tony Jaa kicks several shades of fuck out of a hell of a lot of people.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as the fights are as jawdropping as this, I don’t care if he calls every movie he makes Ong Bak with some numerical designation following, with no more connective a story-based tissue than: ‘Some guy, for some reason, beating a lot of people up in incredibly elaborate ways.”

For all I know, that’s what Ong Bak actually means in Thai. For all I care though, I eagerly look forward whenever I hear that Tony Jaa’s stepping up and putting out another movie.

Sure, he’s not much of an actor, and spends most of this flick glaring and not saying any dialogue. That’s good, though. We don’t want him talking. Talking’s not his forte. I hear he’s not good at math or doing the dishes, either. And he’s not very considerate in bed.

It doesn’t matter, because he is an amazing cinematic fighter. I say this with some knowledge only of what people look like fighting on the big and small screens. I have no idea if people like Tony Jaa, or Donnie Yen, or Jet Li for that matter are actually formidable opponents away from the cameras. They are skilled and trained in a certain kind of choreographed performance that exists for the camera, not for actually beating up legions of people with. I guess if we ever hear about any of those guys, or even Jackie Chan or Chuck Norris, staging a bloody coup, and taking over some nation, we’d know for sure that they actually do possess the skills to pay the bills, conquer nations and crush dissent, and that this movie stuff was just an elaborate ruse to lull the world into a false sense of popcorn-fuelled security.

Thing is, Tony, when his blood is up, actually looks like he could take on an entire nation of fighters (who don’t possess firearms) and win. I pity the poor stuntmen and co-stars in these films, because sometimes it doesn’t look like he’s pulling his numerous kicks, punches or multiple knees to the head and throat. They earn their pay, that’s all I’ll say, and then some.

You can’t spend your pay when your dead, though, or at least it’s harder when you’re crippled. I’ve heard a whole bunch of rumours about stuff that went wrong during the making of this flick, and about Jaa himself going mad and disappearing into the jungle for months because of conflict with the producers. This doesn’t really show up in the finished product, except perhaps for the strange ending, which comes out of nowhere and explains nothing.

Again, it doesn’t matter. The original flick was about a very highly skilled country bumpkin coming to the city to get back his village’s Buddha head, stolen by a crime lord. That didn’t matter: what mattered was that Tony Jaa was willing to beat up half of Bangkok to achieve his ends. The fights and the choreography were absolutely stunning, even more so because the film arrived in the era where we were all getting way too comfortable with the floaty use of wires to suspend both actors and our disbelief.

Jaa delivers, because he knows how to build up, carry through and nail fight scenes. Not so much any of the other parts that constitute a movie, per se, but the fight scenes, definitely. He also cribs from the Chinese classics, throwing in a lot of weaponry, alternate styles and techniques just to show that he can do them all. So whilst it might make no sense story-wise for his character Tien to be duelling kendo style with samurai swords in one scene, or using a three-part-staff in another, or switching from his beloved muay thai style to To ro ken and even throwing in some drunken boxing (made famous by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master flicks), he’s mostly doing it because a) it looks cool, and this is a fight film after all, and b) he wants us to know that he can do virtually anything fight-wise.

It’s up to individual viewers to decide which elements are more important to them in these contexts, because you don’t get both sensible or even functional storytelling along with tremendous fight scenes. One certainly outweighs the other.

Tien is the son of some lord whose family was murdered by a rival. By happenstance, he is found by a bandit leader, Chernong (Sorapong Chatree), who adopts him as his own son after he sees the lad fighting for his life against a crocodile (!) Tien is trained in virtually every martial art there is (that looks cool at least, in that I don’t think they got around to sumo), and thinks about only one thing: no, not about pussy, or about finding a light beer that tastes great but doesn’t leave him feeling bloated.

All he thinks of, all day and all night, is revenge. Revenge!

Some test proceeds for no known reason, whereby he has to dominate a herd of elephants (!), and then has to best his teachers amongst the bandits. There’s no real reason for any of this, except to just have some fights going on, for which I’m not complaining.

His final test involves a fight with a strange person in a cave or tree or something, who is more animal than person, and whose gender eludes me as well. I’m sure it’s a confusion faced by many travellers who’ve ended up in various disreputable bits of Patpong, perhaps drunk, perhaps no longer caring about the distinction between lady, boy, or ladyboy. Strangest thing I’ve seen in a long time, and even better, he/she/it makes an inexplicable yet triumphant comeback later on.

From there the story backtracks for a lengthy flashback illuminating the circumstances of Tien’s early life, all of which repeat stuff that we already know, but with the added virtue of presenting some kind of love story between young Tien and a dancing orphan called Pim (Primorata Dejudom), who are apparently eternally devoted to each other, for no earthly reason I can figure out, and for no real further story significance apart from trying to convince us that Tien isn’t gay.

Of course Tien is gay: he’s gay for revenge, and spends all his time with “bandits”, and he’s much fitter than most hetero guys his age ever hope to be. But that’s irrelevant, and I should be taking far more of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t care’ attitude to the proceedings.

His quest for revenge is pretty inexplicable, in the sense that for no reasons I can work out he thinks attacking a whole random bunch of people will get him closer to the villain who laughs like a movie villain (that kind of irritating, loud, forced HA HA HA HA HA with hands on hips) that no-one, no matter how evil, ever does anywhere apart from in the movies. The ‘plan’ is as ridiculous as the plan in Gladiator, which is inexplicably referenced a few times. There’s also a fair bit of the flick deeply reminiscent of anti-Semite extraordinaire Mel Gibson’s last work Apocalypto. Too many borrowed elements, down to the way much of it is filmed and filtered, are present for it to be a coincidence. Let’s just call it a homage, shall we?

The transitions between scenes are somewhat confusing. Actually, let me go a step further: often, for reasons that have nothing to do with differences of culture or some kind of artistic vision, jarring cuts with no establishing shots take us from confusing scene to confusing scene.

And then the film ends, with practically no resolution that I can recall.

Along the way, though, there are scenes of such incredible athleticism and a willing disregard for gravity, personal health and safety that I have to give the flick a pass. It’s hard to convey in written form just how stunning some of the fight choreography is. Seeing a guy without a wire leap up into the air against two opponents, hitting each of them in turn around four or five times is so amazing that it drops the jaw and stuns the mind. How about leaping from the trunk of an elephant to the tusks to the elephant’s head before flipping over backwards and kicking some poor hapless guy in the head before landing feet first on another.

The film is overstuffed with scene after impressive scene of hand to hand carnage, of which Jaa is clearly a master. It’s thrilling to watch him, utterly thrilling. It recalls the early days and the classic of the genre without resting solely on your nostalgia to entertain you. He is a class of fighter we haven’t seen on screen in a long time, who brings a fierceness and conviction to his scenes that stops the breath and makes the heart skip a beat or two.

Of course, when the fighting dies down, you end up feeling a bit empty. There are some other pretty scenes in the film, including the dance sequence performed before the evil lord by Tien’s childhood sweetheart, and some scenes of pastoral life that are really nice. The costumes are nice. Most of the scenes are, despite the lack of coherent connection between them, well filmed.

It’s just that, at best, they’re only functional, and all they do is make you impatient for the next scene of intense and brutal fighting. Honestly, the fights are good enough to turn your grandmothers into fight fans. Unfortunately, the other stuff’s going to bore them as much as it bores you.

I’ve heard Tony Jaa’s gone mad, completely mad, so there might not be too many more flicks with his signature on them, but at the very least if they can get some security camera footage from the asylum they incarcerate him in, that could result in a film just as worthy as this one, with preferably a better ending.

We can only hope.

7 times Tony Jaa can have my lunch money any time he wants it out of 10

“I wanted you to become King of the Bandits, but you must go and do what you need to do.” – in their world, I think it’s like being the King of Mardi Gras, Ong Bak 2.