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STUDIO: Magnolia Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES: None
Having suffered greatly at the hands of virtually every single person he’d ever loved or trusted, Tony Jaa’s Tien has to overcome impossible odds to avenge the deaths of his father, his mentor and the people of his home. The viewer has to overcome the film’s pathological desire steep everything in layers of inscrutable Buddhist symbolism.
Tony Jaa. Dan Chupong. Nirut Sirichanya. Petchtai Wongkamlao. Primorata Dejudom. Sorapong Chatree. Dozens of punched douchebags.
Originally conceived as a massive historical epic and a prequel to Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, Ong Bak 2 was overcome with a monsoon of personal and financial difficulties, and it’s production company, Sahamongkol Film released it in a barely finished state. The film was a mess, receiving generally negative reviews from critics, but it still took its December 8, 2008 opening weekend’s top slot with $2 million, according to Variety Asia Online. For comparison, the top slot for the weekend of December 9, 2010 was taken by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with only $1 million gross. So, Ong Bak 2, despite being a pretty terrible movie, made some cold, hard cash. In light of that, how could Sahamongkol Film say no to finishing up Ong Bak 2‘s story in a third film?
They should have.
Visually, the film has a few moments of real beauty. The Thai countryside is a mashup of dangerous jungles and rolling, mist-covered hills, and Jaa uses it liberally to infuse the film with a sense of sweat and grit. However, there’s an occasional overuse of CGI as the film sometimes drops in digital backgrounds on wide shots. I can’t help but wonder what kind of visually stunning film we’d have received from a more capable director like Terence Malick.
If you want to get down to what this film is really about, if you want to dig through all the excessive layers of Buddhist symbolism and Baby’s First Character Development, this film is about one guy, Tien, having to overcome his desire for revenge and his physical sensations of pain to become the ultimate Buddhist ideal of the dispassionate warrior, utterly in control of his emotions. Buddhism has a short list of what they call Four Noble Truths, which are said to be basic truths that the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama experienced during his life.
This flick is all about showing these points on film, and Jaa must have ordered a copy of Mel Gibson’s playbook in order to really flesh that suffering out. Tien endures terrible beatings at the hands of his enemies, who spend the first act of the film mercilessly torturing him to the point where virtually every bone in his body is broken. He’s beaten with staves, rammed with a ceremonial log and chained to a gigantic statue for days. The man suffers, but the point that the film tries and mostly fails to get across is that he’s suffering due to his desire for vengeance. He wanted revenge for the murder of his father and the betrayal of his master, and that desire led directly to his capture at the hands of his enemy.
Although he’s saved in a terribly confusing moment for reasons that are never fully explained, Tien still has to deal with the fallout of his torture. During those days of suffering, some characters whose origins were probably explained during Ong Bak 2 do things for reasons that are never spelled out in any form in this movie. There’s a guy who cuts off all of his hair and dons the austere robes of a Buddhist monk, and I guess he’s in charge? I have no idea. There’s a very pretty girl whose function is to be the very pretty girl of the film, and, again for reasons that aren’t at all mentioned, she attempts to teach Tien to dance. Also, there’s a guy who’s supposed to be crazy, which is shown by his long, disheveled hair and attempts at nonsensical comedy. To be fair, that guy is the only real bright spot in the film. For the most part, though, these are the kind of one-dimensional characters that would barely qualify as red-shirts in a Star Trek episode.
While those characters are engaging in actions of utter inconsequence, a completely different guy – the shaggy, black-toothed, grinning scoundrel called the Ghost Crow – travels around the jungle, displaying the kind of muay thai vitality that Tony Jaa should have been executing the entire time. Dan Chupong’s Ghost Crow is not a compelling character; he’s got no depth, and no one refers to him as anything other than a Ghost Crow. However, while Tien is crying over how much his broken body hurts, the Ghost Crow is running around and doing things, interesting things, like driving the killer of Tien’s father bloody insane and eventually murdering him.
In a way, this is as much Dan Chupong’s martial arts movie as it is Tony Jaa’s; Chupong gets a big chunk of screen time to showcase his martial skills. The Ghost Crow is the obvious villain of the film, a Thai Snidely Whiplash, a black hole of immorality that sucks up and destroys everything around him, and that makes him interesting. Tien spends so much time in torture and training montages that it dwarfs the amount of screen time he spends doing the kind of martial arts that are supposed to be this flick’s bread and butter.
About three quarters of the way through the movie, the storyline just takes a jet-propelled nosedive to utter incomprehension. While the Ghost Crow is going around in the kind of primal, black outfits that make every deathcore band in Europe envious, Tien starts wearing all-white outfits like he’s a springtime Calvin Klein model with a Luke Skywalker fetish. The film went from obtuse Buddhist symbolism to blatant good/evil color schemes, completely forgoing the bit where characters are supposed to be ‘developed’ or ‘believable.’ In fact, the film missed a huge opportunity to make a relevant political analogy here. Had Tien worn red like the Thai Red Shirt democratic protesters, this whole movie would have had a completely different and extremely interesting subtext: the heroic warrior on the side of the people, agitating for democracy, versus the corrupt and ravenous monarchy.
This is the point where my own suffering ended, as I divorced myself from the desire to see a good movie. In that, I probably ascended up some kind of Buddhist spiritual staircase. I won’t spoil too much; some of you reading this might still be tempted to watch this movie. I can only suggest that you not do so.
There is a moment towards the climax of the film that basically defines the incomprehensible gibberish of the storyline. It really feels like everyone on set just collectively stroked out for a moment. The camera zooms in on Tony Jaa, who has at this point ascended to the heroic ideal of the dispassionate warrior, utterly in control of his emotions and senses. It zooms in on his face, further and further, his eyeball, his iris, until everything is a dark, unfocused blur. Then, the same shot repeats on the Ghost Crow, who has taken a moral elevator straight down to hell, becoming the archetype for blatantly evil totalitarianism. The camera lunges in on the Ghost Crow’s iris until all we can see is the man’s eyeball. It’s a laughable bit, a clear indication that Jaa’s status as both director and star had swelled his ego to the point where his instincts had gone totally out of control.
And there you have it, the reason why this film doesn’t work. In a film that is all about attaining a rigid control over one’s instincts and emotions, the director, writer and star of the film could not wrestle his own ego down to make a compelling film. I get that this wasn’t the ideal way to make a movie. I understand that the production was troubled, even decapitated at one point. Still, you have to pick up the pieces and use the resources you have at your disposal to make art. We don’t get art with this movie. We barely get a martial arts flick. What we get is a director who is trying so hard to make a character piece that doubles as an allegory for a lot of Buddhist principles, but we end up with some poorly-defined bit parts and a philosophical circlejerk. The supporting characters are one-dimensional, while the main character doesn’t have enough dramatic girth to carry a film of this scope. There’s no Frodo here; there’s not even a Will Turner. There are the elements of a good film, but they’re thrown together in such a half-hearted jumble that it totally negates any depth that the film could have carried.
I could go on and on about this. I love talking about bad movies just as much as I do good films – especially bad films like this. It’s got all the chemical ingredients to make gold, but what came out of the process was lead.
The extras make the actual film look like something bestowed from Buddha himself. There’s a three-minute HDNet special with American martial arts star, Guy Mezger, who mostly just ends up shamefully advertising Ong Bak 1 and 2. There’s a theatrical trailer for Ong Bak 3, which gave me sort of a wistful nostalgic feeling, as if it was advertising a movie I’d already seen. Then, there’s a trailer reel for a few other films from Magnolia Entertainment, none of which looked all that great.