The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) paired Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the nick of time. Two years later 55-year-old Chan is playing the Mr. Miyagi part in the Karate Kid remake and 46-year-old Jet Li is mothballing the martial arts to co-star in broader action-adventure flicks. Into the breach has stepped—and kicked, punched, boxed, and throttled—Thai sensation Tony Jaa, who in just three films has established himself as the guy to beat in this arena, and I mean that literally.
The 34-year-old Jaa is a world-class practitioner of the Muay Thai style of martial arts, which I admit means little to me. I’m not a purist about these things, and neither is Jaa; the DVD extras of his latest, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, show him mixing in Hong Kong-type moves and whatever else makes for exciting action choreography. And that’s what I love about martial arts movies. There are pitifully few new dance musicals to satisfy me, and way too many CGI-built action movies. While the period setting of the new film is digitally enhanced, Jaa and company are the real deal, reveling in the grace and power of the human body. Not for nothing did Gene Kelly inspire Jackie Chan, and the lithe and lethal Jaa kicks it up a few notches. That’s entertainment.
The title needs a little explanation. Jaa burst onto the scene in 2003’s Ong-Bak (”Mean Spirit”), a film set largely in contemporary Bangkok, where he established his persona as a principled kickboxing rustic let loose among the wicked city folk. Retitled and reedited the film, where Jaa is in hot pursuit of a stolen giant Buddha head that guards his village, was a hit here under the title Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior in 2005. That year Jaa returned in Tom-Yum-Goong, which sends a different character off to Sydney to find a kidnapped elephant and its calf. A movie named after soup is a hard sell, so it was renamed The Protector (used prior for a Chan picture) for its U.S. release…and confused me when it turned up in a DVD shop in New York’s Chinatown as Ong-Bak 2.
Under any title, both films did big business worldwide. Like 1985’s Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, starring Chuck Norris (a septuagenarian tomorrow), the real, newly un-hyphenated Ong Bak 2 is a prequel, one that goes back a long time, to the early 15th century. The more involved storyline casts Jaa (who co-directed) as Tien, the son of a slain ruler, who seeks vengeance on the slave traders who abducted him as a boy. The guerrilla fighters who take him in train Tien in various martial arts, and the deed is done. Tien then moves onto avenging his father, a task that consumes the final third of the movie. The film, which endured a lengthy and somewhat messy production, ends confusingly, or perhaps, Buddhistically, with an Ong Bak 3 promised (footage is included as an extra).
The two Collector’s Edition DVDs (the movie is also available as a Blu-ray) contain a version apiece of the film, the first disc the theatrical edition and a second an ”altered” version, which is actually ten minutes shorter and more streamlined. Jaa goes into the mystic in this one, and a little crazy with the hues and contrasts, as if the movie had mated with the color-washed South Pacific (1958). The natural splendor of Thailand is all this or any production needs, and Ong Bak 2, a Tarzan-type story with an Apocalypto feel to it, is best when basic.
”Drive-in critic” Joe Bob Briggs rates these movies on how much ”fu” they have. You want fu—Ong Bak 2 has fu. Crocodile fu. Elephant fu. Pottery fu. Wok fu. Windpipe fu. Artery fu. Mask fu. Hair fu. Sword fu. Man in black fu. Flashbacks fu. Like I said, a lot of friggin’ fu, R-rated and splayed across the widescreen frame.
Impressed as I was, it wouldn’t hurt Jaa to show some humor, or cultivate a new audience. Jaa grew up in rural Thailand among elephants, and has a rapport with them. I let my little girl watch an early scene where Tien tames one, and she clapped her hands excitedly and was completely glued to the screen. It puts a similar, effects-driven sequence in Avatar in its place. The mean spirit might become a family-friendlier one next time out.
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