You probably didn't see Ong-Bak 2, the prequel to spectacular 2003 film that introduced American audiences to muay thai, the Thai national martial art. Filmed in an almost distractingly slick style, with slow-motion replays of its hero's most eye-popping stunts, it made a star of Tony Jaa and a minor splash on this side of the Atlantic. But Jaa has worked slowly, and just 2005's The Protector was his only star vehicle between the first and second Ong-Bak. If you like martial arts, it was worth the wait.
Homegrown American martial arts stars are virtually nonexistent, following the primes of Chuck Norris, Eric Roberts, Jeff Speakman, Steven Seagal, and the Three Ninjas. But in Asia, with numerous state-subsidized film industries and national fighting styles, and nearly a century of collective chop-socky film history, martial arts movies are more than just a genre, they're a medium through which other genres can be filtered. In recent years, those films have been less occupied with envelope-pushing fights and more with relationships between characters: doomed love story (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), opera (Curse of the Golden Flower), historical drama (Jet Li's Fearless), meditation on romance and politics (Hero). In the hands of arthouse directors, export martial arts movies have gotten highbrow, while the domestics are as they always have been: as interchangeable, delightful, absurd, and intricately choreographed as a Bollywood musical.
While Ong-Bak was a modern classic set in contemporary Bangkok, its successor is set in medieval Thailand, with a poorly-explained plot about a military uprising against the rightful monarch and a main character who finds himself caught up in larger matters against his will. There's a halting love story that's completely abandoned, and a series of extended flashbacks to childhood that fills in the plot gaps. Jaa, who codirected, often uses a fairly monochromatic color palette. The movie is often unintentionally funny, as often happens when serious philosophical themes are surrounded by a guy beating the crap out of 20 people standing in a circle attacking one at a time. Reviewers and raters of the film have tended to focus on its flaws -- it only has a collective 6.4 out of 10 on IMDB -- rather than on its eye-popping action sequences.
And those action sequences are among the best ever committed to film. Ong-Bak 2 expands its ambition considerably, and despite its flaws, it is one of the best action epics since the woefully underseen Apocalypto. The actor who plays a younger version of Jaa, Natdanai Kongthong, is stunning in his own right in a crocodile mud wrestling sequence at the start of the movie. Another flashback shows the boy becoming a man, capped by a spectacular extended training sequence even better than Gordon Liu's showstopper as Pai Mei in Kill Bill Volume 2. Its climax makes the Bollywood connection even more explicit, as Jaa crashes a royal dance and attacks the usurper in a seamless spectacle, and then attempts to fight off the entire royal guard.
Tony Jaa is the best martial artist in movies today, and the charisma of his fists is nothing short of breathtaking. Like Bruce Lee in the '70s and Jet Li in the '80s and '90s, he's quite simply the most compelling action star in the world. Jaa's three movies are each modern classics for martial arts aficionados: it's just a shame that it's taken him years to complete each film. This is quite simply one of the most vital and necessary martial arts films in years.
Crossposted at Remingtonstein.