Killer Imports: Ong Bak 2

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Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

After listening to the Macho Movie Review of Ong Bak 2, I was prepared to enjoy an awesome action flick when I inserted my DVD of the movie into my player. To be honest, I had purchased the DVD prior to listening to the review, and I had sampled some of the action scenes. Like Wintle and I imagine other movie lovers, I have a backlog of unwatched DVDs that is growing rather than shrinking. So the acclaim given and enthusiasm shown by Wintle, Nagy, and Billy in their review moved Ong Bak 2 to the top of my stack. Yet, their review came out weeks ago, and I have finally written my review. Why the delay? Because I was disappointed. I guess I should have been skeptical after Billy said that Ong Bak 2 was now his most favorite action flick, supplanting Conan the Barbarian.

I wasn’t sure that my opinion was worth expressing especially since I gather that the majority of people really like this film; however, there is a fair share of negative reviews out there, too. Maybe I might have appreciated Ong Bak 2 more if I hadn’t been unduly influenced by the MMR. I would rather write a review of a movie that had some merit or at least appeal for me. Wait, that’s not true. I think I would enjoy writing about a movie that I really hated, and that sparked some ideas worth expressing. But I don’t think I really have much to say about Ong Bak 2. For me, it was simply okay.

I think I enjoyed the first Ong-Bak more, probably because of the stunts in the modern locations. Ong Bak 2 does amp up the fighting with stronger opponents for Tony Jaa. I didn’t see a connection at all between the two movies other than the star, Tony Jaa. He’s not even playing the same character, I don’t think. I read that Ong Bak 2 is actually a prequel to the first film.

I never did bother to find out what Ong-Bak means after watching the first film. I thought maybe if I found out, I could understand the connection between the two movies. In Thai, “Ong” refers to a Buddha statue. “Bak” means a scar or mark created from a blade. The stolen Buddha statue from Tony Jaa’s character’s village has a mark on it, so “Ong-Bak” is the village’s Buddha statue. There is a village legend about a Muay Thai teacher who risked his life in retrieving the statue from Burmese invaders; Buddha supposedly protected the teacher by transferring a wound from the teacher to the statue. The Buddha statue appears during the opening credits and shows up later as well. Oh, I think I understand why Ong-Bak plays a role in Ong Bak 2 now. Saying any more might spoil the film, so I’ll stop this line of thought.

I also enjoyed The Protector aka Tom Yum Goong; I think I prefer it over Ong Bak 2. (Tom Yum Goong is a popular Thai dish that is hot and sour; it was supposed to imply that watching the movie would be like having Tom Yum Goong. That is, both are stimulating.)

I had seen at stores the DVD releases of The Bodyguard and The Bodyguard 2 with Tony Jaa on the cover, but I had not picked them up because I thought they might have been Ong-Bak and The Protector released under new names. Research on the Internet uncovered the information that they were different movies; however, Tony Jaa only has a small role in each of them. So avoid them unless you’re a Tony Jaa fanatic. Some people have enjoyed The Bodyguard and The Bodyguard 2 on their own merits though.

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I do find Tony Jaa’s high-pitched talking voice kind of wimpy. (And yes, I do realize my own voice is high-pitched.) Because Ong Bak 2 doesn’t have much dialog, I can’t complain about Tony Jaa’s voice in the movie. Tony Jaa plays a character that is orphaned early in the film. He is abducted by slave traders and rescued by a gang leader who admires his spunk and utter fearlessness. He is raised in a gang village occupied by individuals who teach him various martial arts and magic. This allows Tony Jaa the opportunity to demonstrate different styles of martial arts as well as the use of weaponry. For me, the liberal use of the knees especially after a long leap was the trademark action move of Tony Jaa’s Muay Thai martial art. For those who can’t get enough knee action, don’t worry. Jaa hasn’t abandoned the knee slam. Jaa later does a solo theatrical dance routine during the course of the movie, but I don’t recall the gang village having a dance instructor. (Maybe the deleted scenes on the DVD will have that training sequence. I’m kidding. Actually, he learned the dance as a kid.) As an adult, he leaves the village to seek revenge against the man who killed his parents.

Now the MMR of Ong Bak 2 makes a point of saying how good the story is, and how looks among the characters reveal intentions and feelings making dialog unnecessary. I’ll agree that the simple plot services the film in allowing the sequences of fight scenes. But to me, there’s not much of a story. As for the fight scenes, I didn’t find them very interesting. I suppose I’m much more into balletic choreographed action, but I can appreciate visceral messiness as well. Having seen so many action films, I need something special to impress me. I will say that the fight scenes are certainly better than any of the ones from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I realize that’s not much of a compliment. I wasn’t impressed by the weaponry either.

I should mention that I did find the scenes involving elephants to be awesome. It does seem to be rather abusive, or maybe I should say disrespectful, in the way that some elephants are treated like furniture. I have seen film footage of zoo elephants going on berserk rampages, so the docility of the Ong Bak 2 elephants seems strange. The elephants don’t seem to mind someone swinging on their tusks and running around and under their bodies. I guess the elephants were well-trained. I assume they were real. Tony Jaa did say that he had to spend several months with the elephants so that they would become familiar with him.

The cinematography failed to show the natural beauty of the locations. The lighting on the combatants I felt was often too dark. There are some night time scenes I felt could have been better lit as well.

Ong Bak 2 had a troubled production history that isn’t apparent from the final film. The final budget was triple its original estimate. Ong Bak 2 was directed by Tony Jaa and his mentor Panna Rittikrai. They also co-wrote the story. Rittikrai was brought in as co-director to complete the film after Jaa had a money dispute with the producers and walked off the job. Gone are the repeated multiple angle shots of key action stunts. Some people think that the repeated multiple angle shots in earlier films were “amateurish.” I’d love to see this done for a dramatic dialog sequence. Ha ha.

Jaa’s unprofessionalism during the production of Ong Bak 2 has apparently not affected his clout in the Thai movie industry, because he still has directing, writing, and producing credit for Ong Bak 3, scheduled to be released on December 5, 2009. And plans for an Ong Bak 4 have already been laid out.

Magnolia Pictures recently picked up the rights to release Ong Bak 2 domestically in the US. It’s scheduled to be released later this year. I don’t know if it will be released theatrically or direct-to-DVD.

If you want to hear an effusive review of Ong Bak 2, I suggest you listen to the MMR of it. Even though the story is simple, I think I may have misunderstood the ending. I think I need Wintle to explain it to me.

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  • bullet3

    You’re out of your goddamn mind Reed.

    “I will say that the fight scenes are certainly better than any of the ones from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I realize that’s not much of a compliment. I wasn’t impressed by the weaponry either.”

    Really?!! Really!? The beauty of the action scenes in this movie is that they never get repetitive. The Protector got really boring after awhile because Jaa kept doing the same damn knee kick move on every bad guy. Here, he’s switching fighting styles on the fly, on an opponent per opponent basis. And the weapon stuff didn’t impress you?! He goes from 3-piece sectional, slams control of a sword and starts doing unbelievably fast attack moves, and this is before he starts using the elephant as a weapon.

    Honestly, I don’t know how you’re bored by this but like something like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. That style of fighting is so unnatural and boring. Its people dancing on wires in a choreagraphed display, there’s no spontenuity or danger to it.

    I guess my advice to anyone reading this would be to disregard the above review, Reed doesn’t know what he’s talking about on this one.

  • BlackSmoke

    im from the S.E.A region and i can tell you the weapons were very real. used back in the old times. n there were really that many different martial arts practiced back then in the region. there are only stories of them but this i think is the first time a movie incorporated all the fighting styles. thus it seems alien to people unfamiliar with the styles but they actually have a rich history behind them.

  • TheAllKnowingGod

    The fighting in films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon takes a lot of practise, time and precision to get right. I haven’t seen Ong Bak 2 but in the original all Tony Jaa did was elbow, knee and kick people over and over again. It was fucking dull. Hopefully this will be a big improvement with more variety.

  • I’m guessing that Tony Jaa’s fight scenes take much practice, time and precision as well.

    Like in the new Star Trek movie, maybe I’m just getting tired of revenge stories. I like action that, as Bruce Lee would say, has some “emotional content” behind it. I don’t feel anything watching Star Trek or Ong Bak 2.

  • TheAllKnowingGod

    I don’t know. It’s pretty easy to elbow a guy in the head.

    The long take scene in The Protector looked like rehersal footage rather than the finished article.

  • Tai Nguyen

    Well I respect everything this guy says except for the fighting not being impressive… Fact is, to use Thai Boxing and Tiger Style Gung Fu while fighting 2 guys at same time is REALLY impressive. I guess you have to study martial arts in order to have an appreciation for it. As for “TheAllKnowingGod” try fighting someone that knows Thai Boxing and see if you can land an elbow on their head, I highly doubt you could.

  • Thx for your comment, Tai. It’s interesting to read the mixed reaction to this film. Jay and Sean didn’t care much for Jaa’s earlier films, so I’m not sure they’ll ever get around to seeing Ong Bak 2. It would be interesting to hear their opinions.

    In defense of the “TheAllKnowingGod,” I think he meant it might be easier to choreograph an elbow hit for a film (at least for Tony Jaa) rather than do a wire-fu hit.

  • Perspective

    First, Ong-Bak is one of the best movies I have ever seen in my life (even though it was subtitled). You have to have a passion for martial arts and like fighting movies to enjoy this. The moves he (Tony Jaa) pulls off in this movie are simply unreal and truly amazing. For those average Joe’s that have no respect, I would like to see them at least try Muay Thai. I bet within 1 minute with a sub-par Muay Thai fighter, they would be in too much pain and quit.

    I will admit I liked Ong-Bak more than Ong-Bak 2, but Ong-Bak 2 was still a good movie. There was much more variation and plenty of great fighting scenes to put a smile on your face. The storyline is probably better, but personally, who cares about the story line, I just want to watch some great fighting– and boy does it deliver.

    I agree with Bullet3, that Reed does not know what he is talking about and that you should discard this review.

    Wire/cable movies are complete crap. I give Tony Jaa so much more respect for doing these moves without wires. I hate fake/beyond fake movies (ex: Crouching tiger hidden crap).

    If you like martial arts and enjoy fighting definitely watch this movie and for sure Ong-Bak….you will not be disappointed. If you don’t fight or enjoy watching fighting, then you probably wont like this movie.

  • For what it’s worth, I don’t enjoy watching wrestling or the UFC. I do enjoy watching boxing.

    So will people lose all respect for Tony Jaa’s movies when they find out that Jaa uses wires/cables? Ha ha.

    BTW, I re-watched Return of the Dragon aka Way of the Dragon and after 35 years, I must admit that I’ve underestimated how great Bruce Lee really was.

  • UnCommon Sense

    I grew up watching Sci Fi and Horror movies, and was never really exposed to Martial Arts films until the late 80’s when I saw Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon’ for the first time (on VHS, no less).

    Before that, my MA world was limited to the TV show ‘Kung Fu’, the cartoon ‘Hong Kong Phooey’, Jackie Chan’s bit parts in ‘Cannonball Run 1&2′, and (of course) Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow.

    Since then, I’ve feasted on such fare as ‘The Karate Kid'(all 4 of them), ‘No Retreat, No Surrender’, ‘Best of the Best 1&2′, ‘Rapid Fire’, a bevy of Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme crunch and kick flicks, as well as the American explosion of Jackie Chan and Jet Li films.

    I was still hungry for something close to the awe and wonder I felt when I saw that first Bruce Lee film all those years ago…

    Then, on a lark, I went to go see ‘Ong Bak’ with Tony Jaa, and I was amazed!

    The coreography was exciting and pulse-pounding in its reality, the fighting style (Muai Thai) was hard, fast, powerful, and functional – it was like nothing I had ever seen before! It was as if they blended Steven Segal’s bone-crunching Aikido style moves with the power and fluidity of Jet Li. And the stunts were so amazingly real, I questioned if it was full contact, and wondered how people didn’t die making this film!
    When it came out on DVD, I grabbed it quickly. While watching the extras, I learned that Tony was making an Ong Bak 2 and that he planned to focus even more on the deadly style of Muai Thai, and incorporate swords and other style weapons in order to showcase more of what Muai Thai is as a fighting style.

    I have been drooling for the chance to see it since.

    In my opinion – and I’m sure it will get trashed – Tony Jaa is one of the most incredible and talented Martial Artists since Bruce Lee. His films may come across a bit cheezy and at times boring, but hey… so were Bruce’s Hong Kong films.
    These are written, filmed, and directed by Thai people – not Hollywood. Even the Protector had it’s flaws despite RZA’s (Wu-Tang Clan) soundtrack support and and marqueed presentation by Quentin Tarantino in an attempt to “Americanize” it.

    If you want to see a good representation of Tony’s mastery of Muai Thai – and the reason I am enamored with his mad skills – check out the scene toward the end of the Protector when he fights the endless swarm of thugs before entering the elephant skeleton room where he confronts the main bad-girl and her three massive bodyguards.
    As each nameless henchman attacks Tony, he uses a different move to take each one down, culminating in a massive expanse of broken bodies and an applied demonstration of the devastating effects of the Muai Thai style.

    Ong Bak 2 may not be a Cinematic masterpiece filled with Oscar-worthy characters, emotionally charged dialoge, or ballet-inspired martial Arts coreography… But it will be filled to the brim with concussive fight scenes, amazing stunt work, and ‘Holy Shit! Did you see that!’ moments.

    You know… The stuff we all look forward to in a great Martial Arts flick.

  • Great comment, UnCommon Sense. Well, I hope your anticipation doesn’t let you down when you do eventually get to see it. I think you are so enamored with Tony Jaa that you will enjoy any movie he is in. Ha ha.

    Sean and hopefully Greg will be watching the movie soon, so we can discuss the movie in an upcoming Film Junk podcast. I think I am a bigger fan of martial arts films than Sean or Greg, so it will be interesting to hear their comments. Jay has only seen one of Bruce Lee’s films. And there are only friggin’ four of them! (I’m not including “Game of Death” for obvious reasons.)

    I do wonder if Ong Bak 2 is so great, then why has it not been picked up for theatrical release in North America?

  • UnCommon Sense

    I read in another Blog that France was given exclusive release rights to O-B 2…

    Now all we need is another ‘presenter’ like Quentin Tarantino to fight for a piece of the pie so we in the States can enjoy it for a week or so on the Big Screen before it goes to DVD.

    Unfortunately (like Bruce, Jackie, and Jet) Tony is going to have to do something in a U.S. made film before achieving the recognition, popularity, and respect he deserves.

  • Robbie Jacobs

    Ong Bak 2 (and the rest of Jaa’s movies) are REAL fight scenes. The hits people take are real hits. No wires. The flips are real flips. The entire premise behind Tony Jaa’s style is that fighting in cinema features should be as real as possible; similar to Jackie Chan’s work ethic. I am also a long time resident of South East Asia; born in Jakarta , Indonesia, spending almost too much time in neighboring countries including Thailand. Jaa style is a perfect highlight of South East Asian martial arts, incorporating styles like Muay Thai (Thailand) and Pencak Silat (Indonesia).

    Ong Bak, yet not showing off millions of dollars worth of production value, is as real as it gets.

    If you haven’t seen it in real life; don’t bother replying/arguing; you have no idea what the other side of the world is like. (Reed ; you’ve got this film all wrong)

  • Yeah, I know a lot of people really like Ong Bak 2, Robbie. It got a major DVD release in North America, so I suppose there are Jaa supporters here.

    As for the fight scenes being “real,” contact may be happening, but I really doubt the fighters are trying to hurt each other. Even if the fight scenes are real as they supposedly are in MMA tournaments, I don’t find MMA fighting that exciting to watch. I would rather have the kind of “artistic” fighting seen in movies like “Hero.” (Or as Jay likes to put it, any movie with falling cherry blossoms.)