A few years ago, a new talent was unleashed upon the unsuspecting public in the form of Muay Thai martial arts sensation Tony Jaa. Jaa was the star of Thai film Ong-Bak, which after two years in release and a couple of celebrity endorsements, namely Quentin Tarantino and RZA, the film made its way onto U.S. shores and a new hero for all fans of martial arts films, replacing Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, was born. Jaa carried a similar athletic reputation with him and the requisite “he does his own stunts” mantra, making him an instant person-of-interest in future action films. His Muay Thai style displayed in the film contained a ton of brutal elbows and thumping knees landed upon his opponents, eliciting a resounding “wow” factor from audiences. Though the film’s plot had much to be desired, the feats contained within made it a bit of a cult classic and now years later, Jaa has returned to the well that made him famous outside of Thailand, with Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning.
The first difference from the initial film is an obvious one as the story no longer takes place in a modern day cityscape, but the 15th century Thai jungle. Ong-Bak 2 is a prequel if ever there was one. The story focuses on Tien, a young boy born into nobility, but after the murder of his parents is stripped of his title and relegated to poverty. When in horseback transit to another village, with a bodyguard, Tien is ambushed by a rival tribe and the bodyguard sacrifices himself in hopes of Tien making a great escape.
The guard’s efforts don’t hold up for long, as Tien is picked up almost immediately by the gang of thieves. Tien’s first instinct, however, is not one of fear, but instead he enacts an insubordination and resistance to authority destined to get him killed. This is indeed the gang’s plan, as they force Tien to walk the plank into a muddy pit inhabited by a ferocious crocodile. Tien displays all the mighty heft and angst toward the crocodile as he does his captors and his rambunctiousness is rewarded and his life spared.
After his display of skill, Tien is taken to a martial arts training ground with tons of young students, like a Muay Thai Hogwarts. With a childhood consisting of learning an unwanted dance, Tien is able to quickly adapt to his new surroundings as his acquired skills transfer fittingly to his new teachings. Over a short period of time Tien earns rank in the training ground and is soon promoted to the number two man in charge. However, the breeding is solely for future thieves and murderers and in order to avenge his parents’ death, he must take down the very man who helped him get back on his feet.
Ordinarily, I’m the type to think it unfair to compare one film to another, especially when determining quality. I believe each film should be given a chance to stand on its own two and not be beholden to any film which came before it. This ideology has to go somewhat by the wayside when discussing sequels, though. It’s inevitable to compare it to parts of the same franchise as they’re supposed to be a continual telling of one story, just in multiple parts. Ong-Bak 2 pales in comparison to the original in many ways and should hardly be considered part of the same franchise, though Ong-Bak 3 is said to fill in the cap between the two. Therefore in George Lucas-ian logic, the chronology of the franchise will eventually be 2, 3 and then 1, forever dooming any child learning to count based on the Jaa-starring series.
As the film’s star, making his directorial debut (as co-director alongside mentor and writer Panna Rittikrai), Tony Jaa had a lot riding on this film. He seems to have taken his position so seriously he is said to have broken down during the middle of the shoot and retired to the jungle, undergoing a personal Hearts of Darkness in the process. He had good reason to be stressed. It’s impossible to blame the filmmakers on desiring to create an artier or more respectable film than the primary entry, but despite that film’s storyline shortcomings, it at least had the action to fall back on. Ong-Bak 2 possesses an even less engaging story, compared to its predecessor, but sadly has not even a handful of the athletic and artfully violent prowess.
The first 60 of the film’s 90-minute runtime will leave action fans sorely disappointed and disheartened. Though Ong-Bak was mainly an exercise in showcasing Jaa’s talent, it did so greatly. With dialogue sprinkled thinly across the film’s surface, Ong-Bak 2 appears to perhaps solely exist to bank off of the Ong-Bak name. Jaa displays little of what made him famous, aside from an overlong 10-minute period toward the film’s end, but done so in a straightforward and somehow disorienting manner, rendering the effect as lackluster. The film’s final pathos is largely devoid of dramatic heft, regardless of how you’re “supposed” to feel
To say I was disappointed by Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning would be understatement, though not a feeling entirely unanticipated. Jaa’s Ong-Bak fallow-up, The Protector, was a letdown from his first film, but at least was able to deliver on an impactful, visceral level. Ong-Bak 2 will leave you yearning for the new discovery once again and perhaps have you doubting Jaa will ever see another uptick in his career trajectory. We would rightfully have felt robbed if Jaa had chosen to let Ong-Bak stand by itself, but these poorer efforts only dilute the initial classic. Instead of spending your life with Ong-Bak 2, give the original one more spin and remember the promise that once was.