First things first: If you're a fan of action movies, martial arts movies, stunt work or just watching bodies get knocked around in general and you haven't seen a Tony Jaa movie, put down whatever you're doing and get a hold of these films. Jaa is doing some of the most exciting work in action cinema today. He's got an incredible eye for set pieces, melds different styles and approaches to action flawlessly, and continuously pushes himself to deliver something new and exciting with each production. The simultaneous release of Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior and Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning on Blu-ray showcases both his auspicious debut and his growth as an artist.
The first Ong-Bak, set in modern times, follows a trajectory familiar to anyone who has spent any time around Asian action cinema. Ting (Tony Jaa), a young man in a small village, is taught the ancient arts of combat, but is also told never to use them for violence. But, as tends to happen, someone comes along and steals the head of the ancient Ong Bak statue and the town becomes cursed without it. They have no recourse but to send Ting to the big, bad city to try and recover their precious statue head. Predictable hijinks and bone-smashing ensue.
People don't come to these movies for the story, and here that's particularly handy, as the story is pretty rote. The actual character of Ting is also pretty uninteresting. He has valor, he can kick things crazy good, you don't want to race him. That's about it. On the other hand, perhaps we should be grateful for this, as the specter of an action star trying really really hard to act with great depth and emotion can be a painful situation (see: Steven Seagal).
The personality of the film is shuffled off to Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a former resident of Ting's village who moved to the big city to become a hustler, and his partner in crime, Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol). Wongkamlao acquits himself well enough. He's not given enough antics, storylines or involvement in the fighting to make himself a particularly memorable sidekick, but he does bring some welcome levity to the film. Yodkamol's main role is to be plucky and adorable, a charge she manages handily.
The second film changes things up, to say the least. This sequel is set, unpredictably enough, about 600 years before the original. This time Jaa's character, Tien, is the son of a provincial ruler who is caught in the midst of great political upheaval. His father hides Tien away in a friend's dance academy, where poor young Tien is forced to learn dance instead of fulfilling his desire for weapons training. Tien's father is eventually, inevitably murdered. Tien is captured and sold into slavery, where he escapes thanks to a motley band of thieves, whose group he then joins.
Ong-Bak 2 opens up some possibilities for making a much deeper, more thoughtful film than the original, but loses almost all of these to the overwhelming need to make Tony Jaa a hero. Lip service is paid to a prophecy about Tien's character finding ruin if he were to pick up weapons and how he is now running with thieves and outlaws, but they seem more like Robin Hood, attacking the attackers and seeking vengeance, than actual bad guys. There are betrayals that come later in the movie, but they're shocking because, due to everything we'd seen earlier, we weren't really expecting these thieves to be all that bad. And, of course, Jaa is largely blameless.
The ending also has great potential to be read in an awesome, Buddhist way. Given how hard the movie pushes to make Jaa the hero, it doesn't necessarily end the way you think it's going to, and the narration leads you to believe that perhaps this movie is connected to the first Ong-Bak through the karmic ties of reincarnation. However, one of the special features on the Ong-Bak 2 disc is a preview of the filming of Ong-Bak 3, a direct sequel to Ong-Bak 2, that doesn't seem to give a lot of credence to that theory.
There's a definite tension in Ong-Bak 2 that makes it compelling, but it's not within the story itself. It's more within the production. After the huge success of Ong-Bak and The Protector, all the stops were pulled out for Ong-Bak 2. The production got more lavish, the talent pool both in front of and behind the camera got wider, and they did the whole film with an entirely Thai cast and crew. This was to be Thailand's Big Movie. And indeed, in many ways, it is. However, there's such idol worship around Jaa and such nationalistic pride around the film as a whole that it seems impossible for there to be any actual exploration of darkness or conflict around Jaa's character.
But honestly, that's just the picking of nits. The main attraction here is watching Tony Jaa do his thing, and he's more than enough. In the fights, he's extraordinary. In the chase scenes, he's exemplary. Ong-Bak's chase through the marketplace, with Jaa jumping, spinning, cartwheeling, and flipping over dozens of bad guys and obstructions (and, most famously, going underneath a truck by sliding into a split) was an obvious influence on the opening chase from Casino Royale. In the second movie he races over the backs of stampeding elephants. I'd like to see Bond do that.
Jaa's primary training is in Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing that utilizes the elbows and knees. One of Jaa's great strengths is understanding how to translate the actual practices of the martial arts into a more cinematic performance. Due to the focus on elbows and knees, Muay Thai fighting works best in close conditions, but when filming a fight this tends to blur the action and make it difficult to read. Jaa opens up the action by combining the fighting with dance-like movements, throwing his body through the air, sliding across the floor, doing whatever necessary to make the movements bigger and more cinematic.
He also understands how to build the tension within action, not just across one fight scene, but across an entire film. It's not necessarily a nuanced understanding, as Jaa subscribes to the BIGGER FASTER MORE school of fight scene delivery, but again, how many times does an awesome action movie end with a letdown of a fight scene? Never in a Tony Jaa movie. In Ong-Bak, Ting fights like hell against an overwhelming, uncaring crime syndicate through the whole film to get back the head of a small statue, and it's with no small degree of irony that the final massive fight scene is held against that crime syndicate trying to steal the head off a building-sized subterranean statue. In the final fight of Ong-Bak 2 Jaa, who had never done much with weapons before, shows an incredible ability with a whole host of weapons from a variety of cultures. It's like watching someone in a band move seamlessly from piano to oboe to theremin to didgeridoo.
The visual specs vary widely between the two films. The first movie is presented on single layer 25 GB, and while it's definitely an improvement on the DVD, it still has some splotchy and grainy moments, especially in some of the city scenes. Ong-Bak 2, however, looks stellar — 1080p High Def shows off the incredible scenery and design and highlights just how much all the stops were pulled with the making of this flick. The audio on both discs is great, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, so every bone crunch and face kick comes through with awesome crispness.
The first disc has some oddly goofy and charming special features. There's a French rap video in which two performers basically rap at a shadow-boxing Tony Jaa. Some b-roll footage has some great scenes of Tony Jaa getting lit on fire and not exactly knowing how to put himself out. The RZA even shows up in one strange, shot-on-the-fly promo for the movie. There's also a very simple "Movements of Muay Thai" feature and a live performance of Tony Jaa exhibiting his skills to an audience.
The second disc special features help to promote both the movie and Tony Jaa as torch-bearers for the fantastic world of Thai cinema. All the interviews and behind the scenes featurettes simply state over and over again what an extraordinary talent Jaa is. Eventually it becomes a case of the lady doth protest too much, as the producers and Jaa spend a great deal of time talking about how Jaa isn't ripping off Jackie Chan, especially when he fights drunk, a la Chan's awesome The Legend of Drunken Master. They're definitely ripping Chan off, but it's not a total steal. Jaa understands the moves, but he doesn't have Chan's humor or heart.
The other big theme of the interviews is how much Jaa has grown as an actor in this movie. It's kind of adorable to hear Jaa state flat out that he never acted, he just had his "action face." He definitely has a bit more to work with here, but he's still no Brando. He's still got miles to go before he can touch the charm of Chan. But it's nice to know that he's aware of where his films can go and he's taking steps to get them there.
It's a shame every interview seems so invested in whitewashing, as some of the stories of that production, including fights with the Weinstein company, bringing on a second director and Jaa's infamous walking off set and disappearing into the jungle for two months, don't get mentioned at all, but seem like they'd be great stories to hear from those involved.
In addition to the featurettes there is preview footage of Ong-Bak 3, a continuation of the second, as well as an alternative cut of the movie that is actually about ten minutes shorter than the original.
Again, if you like action flicks, I cannot recommend these films enough. Both discs are great, and well worth it. Highly endorsed!