Okay, I took a fair amount of guff for the fact that, here, in February of 2010, I’d only just gotten around to finally seeing Tony Jaa’s game-changing breakthrough role in 2003’s Ong Bak, but what can I say? I’ve been busy, alright? I mean, between the Call of Duty games and baseball season, there’s only so much one man can accomplish, am I right? Well, lucky for me, baseball season’s still a couple of months away, and the latest Call of Duty game sucks the high hard one (that’s right, I said it), so I’ve got nothing but time to catch up with Mr. Jaa.
I have to say, I was a bit puzzled when I’d heard Ong Bak 2 was, in fact, a prequel set hundreds of years earlier, as I couldn’t see how Ong Bak’s visual style and tone would translate to an ancient setting. However, as soon as the film opened, I could see that this was a complete departure from the first film in every conceivable way. Gone is the grungy, lo-fi atmosphere of downtown Bangkok, throbbing techno score, and simple-yet-effective plot. Here they are replaced by gorgeous sets and sweeping jungle vistas, lush cinematography, and a storyline so epic in scope, it would take more than one film to tell it (more on that later). What hasn’t changed, however, is Jaa’s dedication to creating some of the most visually impressive and elaborate fight sequences ever committed to film.
Ong Bak 2 opens with Tien, the son of the noble Lord Sihadecho, being feisty by one of his father’s loyal guards after Tien’s family is massacred by the evil Lord Rajasena (Sarunyoo Wongkrachang). The guard is killed, and the now orphaned Tien is captured by slave traders who opt to throw the feisty young boy into a crocodile pit for their amusement rather than attempt to mold him into a suitable slave. While Tien battles for his life, a mysterious group of guerilla fighters, led by Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), attack the slaver camp. Seeing the fight in the young boy’s eyes, Chernang throws a knife to Tien and watches as the boy dispatches the crocodile. Confident that Tien has the stuff to join his gang of fighters, Chernang takes Tien back to his village, where he offers to train the boy in all manner of martial arts and weapons fighting styles. We get the obligatory montage of Tien learning the unique styles of each of Chernang’s most proficient fighters, and, as the boy blossoms into a young man (now played by Tony Jaa), Chernang – now something of a father figure to Tien - is ready to hand over leadership of the group to him. Tien, however, has vengeance on his mind. He ventures off to settle the score with Rajasena, but soon discovers that Rajasena did not act alone, and the revelation is the ultimate betrayal.
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning can be a bit overwhelming at times, especially when one considers the relatively simple story of its predecessor (to which this films ties are tenuous at best). While Ong Bak’s threadbare plot served as nothing more than a means by which to get Tony Jaa into situations where he could kick maximum amounts of tail, Ong Bak 2 is much deeper, with a host of colorful characters, complex relationships, and all manner of backstabbing and betrayal. Then there’s the look of this film; a polished and beautifully photographed movie on par with some of the most Hong Kong’s most elegant offerings. As the look and story of Ong Bak has evolved, so has Jaa, who, here, blossoms into a much more commanding screen presence, delivering lines with a self-assurance and intensity that is a welcome change from the rather meek and uncomfortable demeanor displayed in his previous outings. Virtually everything here is done bigger, better, and with a greater sense of ambition than in the previous film, but it still falls a bit short of the Thai martial arts masterpiece I’m sure Jaa (who wrote and co-directed along with his mentor, Panna Rittikrai) envisioned, and much of that has to do with the well-documented budgetary issues that plagued the film. Depending on who you believe, Tony Jaa walked off of the set one day, and held up production for months. This resulted in serious cash-flow problems that, once filming resumed, made it next-to-impossible to tell the entire story in one film, and led to the decision to release Ong Bak 2 with an ambiguous ending and finish the story in Ong Bak 3 (which, as of this writing, is scheduled for a spring 2010 release). In the end, Ong Bak 2 feels unfinished because it is unfinished, and not just in the final act. There are a host of underdeveloped ideas and plot threads that I have a feeling we’ll see better fleshed out when the third part of this “trilogy” is released, but, until then, they mar what is an otherwise fantastic and beautifully crafted film.
Magnolia unleashes Ong Bak 2 on Blu-ray in a stunning 2.35:1 aspect ratio that makes Fox’s dreary transfer of Ong Bak look positively rustic by comparison. Right from the outset, the quality of the transfer is apparent as there’s just a smorgasbord of fine detail on display, especially evident in faces, fabrics, and the complex jungle foliage. The film has a vivid color palette, with stunning vistas awash in lush greens and blues, and vibrant costumes and set pieces, while contrast between light and dark is solid, with rich, inky blacks lending a nice sense of depth of the image. The 5.1 DTS Master HD soundtrack is wonderfully balanced affair, with crisp highs and thunderous lows, and an abundance of well-mixed discrete effects populating the soundfield. I can’t account for the English language track as I refuse to watch dubbed movies. No, I’m not a pretentious film snob! How dare you suggest such a thing? Why I oughta…
Magnolia loads the Blu-ray up with a great selection of extras but, sadly, the bulk of them are presented in standard definition. We get a beefy three part making-of featurette (SD), a three part “behind-the-scenes” feature which consists of a lot of raw footage set to music (SD), a collection of interviews with Jaa, co-director Rittikrai, as well as various cast members and crew (SD), and a teaser for Ong Bak 3 (SD).
HD offerings include an alternate cut of the film overseen by Luc Besson’s production outfit, as well as a short HDNet special entited A Look at Ong Bak 2, appropriately enough. We also get trailers for this and other Magnolia releases (HD)
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning is a complete 180 from the first film, and, while fans of the original’s raw and gritty style may be thrown for a loop by this prequel’s elegant look and style, once they see Jaa in action, they’ll be rightly hooked. While the film doesn’t feel quite finished, what is here is remarkable stuff, and certainly one of the best martial arts films of the past decade, but I hope that Ong Bak 3 ties up the loose ends enough so that Jaa’s ambitious vision can be fully realized.