What we have here is not a sequel to the original Ong Bak, and most everyone with some clue about either film knows this. It’s Tony Jaa’s attempt at creating the sort of spiritually-fueled martial-arts epic that Bruce Lee was exploring immediately before his death. Check out the bonus features on Warner Brothers’ Enter the Dragon DVD for some hints of what Game of Death was to have been if Lee had lived to finish it.
I can’t yet say if Jaa did in fact pull off something that ambitious, because 2 isn’t really finished either. It’s a part of a larger whole that will only snap into place when the third film in the cycle comes out later this year. I can say that as far as action on film goes, the bar raised by the original Ong Bak has been blown off its supports and left protruding from the ceiling. I have my quibbles with the story construction, sure, but they take a major backseat to the stuff Jaa does in this film with sweat, muscle, sinew, blood, fists, elbows, knees, knives, swords, arrows, and … elephants.
Tien leaps from the filthiest crocodile pit ever filmed
to mastery of the bandit tribe that saves him from slavery.
2 does not pick up where the first movie left off; the first movie might as well not have existed here at all. Instead, it opens back in the 15th century, when Thailand was in upheaval. Tien (Jaa), the son of the king, survives treachery and assassination only to end up in the cage of slave traders. For their amusement, they throw him into the filthiest crocodile pit ever put on film — but he’s bailed out by the bandit king Cher Nung, who tosses the boy a knife and tells him “Your life is in your hands.” One dead crocodile later, Tien is welcomed into Nung’s band of merry men with a warning from the local soothsayer: every time this kid picks up a weapon, he will be all but unstoppable. “Weapons are the tangible form of power,” his teacher goes on to tell him — which makes us wonder what happens when this kid makes himself into a weapon.
Well, that’s exactly what happens: Cher Nung’s men train Tien in what seems like every martial art ever devised. This sort of thing typically culminates in these films in a final test, where all the experts step up and have their butts handed back to them in paper bags. We get that, all right, but it’s filmed with class and even a certain grim beauty: there’s a great moment where Tien has one of his masters at sword-point, and a single drop of sweat rolls down the man’s face and splashes on the flat of the blade. Very nice. (The rest of the movie’s photographed with great luster, too; it sports the kind of dark, rich colors better associated with a fantasy film, not just a routine beat-‘em-up.)
The movie's gorgeous photography gives it the kind of luster
you'd normally associate with an all-out fantasy film.
Tien eventually begins to channel his energy away from mere piracy, and towards getting revenge on the men who betrayed his family and sent him into exile. That part’s not hard to see, but the movie tackles each perfunctory plot step with such gusto, it scarcely matters. Take the scene where Tien hunts down and takes revenge on the slave traders who first imprisoned him: at first he has to fight them with only his legs, because he’s had a whole gallon of liquor poured down his throat and he can’t stand up. He’s devastating without even taking his back off the ground. THEN he stands up, and that’s when the fecal matter really hits the oscillatory circulating device.
The extended climax is even better, a stupefying showcase where Ting faces off against any number of enemies in an abandoned thieves’ compound — which includes an elephant as part of the battle terrain. It’s like a one-up from fighting on the top of a train, or jumping from moving car to moving car. I smiled as much at the little touches as I did the big ones. E.g., one of the best ways to deal with a man who has a sword is to make sure it never gets out of the scabbard in the first place. Jaa even one-ups himself there: at one point someone thrusts at him with a blade, and Jaa catches it in his own sheath. (Turns out the other guy doesn’t have a Plan B for what happens after that.)
Even if the conclusion is, well, inconclusive, what there is
to be seen is more than worth taking the time to see.
It’s been salutary to refer to anything Jaa’s been in as a “Thai martial arts movie” — as a way to talk about the production itself and the fighting styles shown. 2’s still in that vein, but it’s more pan-Asiatic in many ways. Some of this is subtle, some not: many of Jaa’s thieving partners and future enemies, with their smoke bombs and black hoods, are ninja in all but name. And one of Jaa’s sparring partners is either a displaced samurai or someone who learned at the feet of such a man. (Probably inherited his clothes, too.) But the pieces have been integrated well into the whole and add to the wild flavor of the movie: it feels more like we’re seeing an alternate or previously undiscovered past, not a self-conscious pastiche.
The biggest flaw in 2 is the ending, which as I hinted earlier isn’t really an ending. There is a climax and a catharsis of sorts, but it’s got such a hastily tacked-on feel that it brings the movie down with a bump. Yes, a sequel is on the way, and is due out this summer, but even the middle portion of a trilogy (if that’s even what this really amounts to) should be able to stand on its own as best it can. I guess that makes this nine-tenths of a martial-arts classic, and if you’re willing to settle for nine-tenths, so am I.