Tony Jaa, who hit to fame in 2008’s ground-breaking, world-wide hit “Ong Bak” created a rejuvenation into action cinema and put the laser focus of the world’s attention on Thai action cinema.
Following Ong Bak Jaa came out with 2005’s “Warrior King“, incorrectly labelled as Ong Bak 2, this movie carried on the formula of strong-style martial arts combined with fast-paced frenetic action.
There is no doubt that Jaa’s rise to fame impacted action cinema both in the East and in the West; you can see influences of it in The Bourne Identity franchise, and even in the most recent James Bond movies.
However, Jaa’s public fall from grace and falling out with mentor and friend Panna Rittikrai has made many wonder whether Jaa will ever come back to his full potential; indeed many have asked why he never went to Hollywood.
The reasons of course are many, some point to his lengthy contract with Thai based studios, others point to Jaa’s need to have full control over projects; a choice which would lead him to desert the filming of Ong Bak 3 for months at a time and would eventually lead to Panna Rittikrai finishing off the Ong Bak 3 project, and Mr Jaa to abandon movies and join a Buddhist Monastery.
If Jaa can learn anything from his heroes, then one would point to Jackie Chan’s early career where he was signed up to an equally lengthy/exclusive contract with Fist of Fury producer Lo Wei and eventually having to break the contract to go work for the likes of Golden Harvest.
Of course, the audience soon moved on to the likes of Korea action cinema; and yet there still is hope that Jaa’s return will invigorate Thai action cinema to the International audience just like his 2008 hit, Ong Bak.
And so we come to the context of his public fall of grace, the films Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3.
Originally conceived as one movie, Ong Bak 2/3 tells the story of Tien, a child whose family is brutally slaughtered by assassins dispatched by the country’s tyrant and king – a move which cements his power and instills fear into the local population.
Tien is then raised from child to adulthood by a group of pirates, outlaws, and thieves and taught various martial arts and become a pirate/outlaw, however driven by a desire for revenge he uses his skills to attempt to assassinate the tyrant.
This failed assassination attempt leads to the Tyrant hitting back at the outlaws, and smoking Tien out into an all-out final battle where a truth about his pirate mentors is revealed.
Ong Bak 2 has all the hallmarks of a great Tony Jaa movie – packed filled to the brim of action, amazing choreography, and an interesting story.
Towards the end of the Ong Bak 2 we are introduced to an evil “Crow” character; I’m still unsure of why this character is introduced near the end of the movie, he appears and disappears so quickly its hard to know why he is even in the movie — his whole appearance is only ever explained in the third movie.
Additionally, there is one samurai character who appears near the end with a wicker basket on his head; this character always reminded of “The Simpsons” episode where Homer witness a Yakuza/Mafia fight, points out a Yakuza guy all in white standing in the background and says, “But Marge, that little guy hasn’t done anything yet; look at him, he’s going to do something – and you know its going to be good!”
This character, although doing very little, has an actual imposing feeling of danger when Jaa is facing him.
For fight fans, Jaa moves from one style to another; towards the end of the movie he fights two fighters in two different styles at the same time.
Ong Bak 2 is fast-paced, frenetic and a lot of fun.
Shame this cannot be said of Ong Bak 3.
The shift in tone is vastly different to the previous title; where there was fast-paced action there now lies a much slower-paced movie that plods through a lengthy redemption/transcendence storyline that really takes the shine off Ong Bak 2.
Allow me to demonstrate. Remember that Samurai guy I mentioned? The one who “stood back” and did very little, the one whom I claimed posed a real threat to Jaa — well, he’s killed within the first 10-20 minutes of Ong Bak 3.
Sorry, I perhaps should have put spoilers on that. Its a shame, because I would have liked to have seen Jaa face this weird Darth Vader-like Samurai guy; and also once this fight scene is completed the movie suddenly changes and becomes more of a mysticism film filled with character study than a Tony Jaa branded fight movie.
Anyway, following on almost immediately from Ong Bak 2, Ong Bak 3 starts with the “execution” of Tony Jaa’s character and a total focus on the rise to power of evil “Crow” figure we saw in Ong Bak 2.
Indeed, the entire focus of the movie is with the “evil” Crow figure, and his rise to power by taking the throne of the Tyrant king – and his desire to recapture the “body” of Tony Jaa and cement his power over the whole country.
Tony Jaa, despite being “executed” is healed by Buddhist Monks and begins a path of “transcendence”, something taught to him to separate himself from his lust for vengeance.
Only upon completing his training Jaa can compete against the evil Crow figure in a final battle.
The final fight sequence between Jaa and the Crow is by far the weakest fight sequence in the whole trilogy. Its filmed in slow motion and the wire effects really take the gloss off a Tony Jaa movie, a man who made his living with the term “real fight”.
The final fight sequence between Crow and Jaa is uninteresting; the main reason for this is because the Crow poses no threat at all to Jaa. This is because a) his evil mysticism power has been removed and b) Jaa simply dances his way to victory in a style which seems similar to traditional Thai dancing mixed with Tai Chi.
Indeed, watching the final fight sequence, I am reminded of another evil vs good fight sequence in Jet Li’s “The One“. In this, the good Jet Li actually uses a soft circular style against the hard straight style employed by the evil Jet Li; but the good Jet Li only employs the soft circular, Tai Chi inspired style, when he is beaten by using his traditional straight style.
If Jaa reshot this whole sequence showing the Crow’s dominance and Jaa’s strategy shifting to a different style, or even a fight sequence where he’s shifting between styles mid-sequence, then this would have vastly improved the final fight; instead we get a very boring and uninteresting fight where there seems to be no real threat.
Watching Ong Bak 3 I was struck by the irony of the “transcendence” storyline as how close it seemed to reflect Tony Jaa’s public fall from grace and retreat to the Buddhist Monastery — the parallel’s are striking, a hero gets broken, disappears to a Monastery, and comes back to win over impossible odds.
Hopefully, Jaa’s planned comeback with 2012’s “The Protector 2” (currently being filmed in 3D and directed by Hong Kong action legend Sammo Hung (full story: Twitchfilm) will rejuvenate his career, and reposition him as the king of “real fight”, but as with everything; only time will tell.