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Itís been ages since weíve seen Tony Jaa kick up his heels, and knees, and fists on the big screen.  Four years since our last glimpse of the man hailed as reviving martial arts cinema with 2003ís Ong Bak.  Muay Thai was the new move thanks to Jaa, but then after 2005ís Tom Yum Goong {The Protector}, the unexpectedly tragic story of a boy and his elephant, Jaa went underground.

Fortunately for chop-socky fans, Jaa has returned, not only as the lead in the sequel to his star-making Ong Bak, imaginatively titled Ong Bak 2, but this time Jaa has taken up the reins as director, guaranteeing some of the most beautiful ďheroĒ shots ever filmed and a seriously fun Muay Thai good time.

Going centuries into Thailandís past, we are shown the downfall of a royal dynasty.  A violent coup has left the young prince Tien, orphaned, hunted by rebels and left to fend for himself in the wilds of the jungle.  Kidnapped by a group of slave traders, and forced to fight in gladiator-style combat in an alligator pit, the princeís will to live is noticed by an observer who is much more than he seems and takes the boy under his wing and into his den of thieves collected from around the world.  The prince grows up a student of all different styles of martial arts and shines so well in his adopted fatherís eyes that he is made the banditsí leader, organizing successful raid after raid and eventually exacting revenge not only on his former slave masters, but on the traitors that destroyed his family.

Perhaps wisely, Jaa speaks perhaps three lines in the entire film, letting his fists, knees elbows and other body parts do the talking.  A mash-up of Gladiator, Robin Hood, Bruce Leeís Game of Death and even a bizarre Empire Strikes Back pollination; Ong Bak 2 is overlong at 115 minutes, but Jaa keeps the action coming, and what action it is.  We get to see Jaa do his expert Muay Thai as well as his mastery at Shaolin kung fu, kenjutsu, Polynesian grappling and Capoeira and itís all great fun to watch.  Jaaís first effort as a director deserves some praise, though certainly not for everything in this film.  His inability to reign in some of the abundantly bad acting, particularly by the grownĖup version of his childhood sweetheart and a bad guy who must be the Thai version of the late Richard Kiel gets no luv.  Maybe itís a cultural thing, but really, repeated extreme close ups of nasty mouths spitting nasty things into the camera is usually not big comedy in this country.  No kudos, either, for his inability to choose competent costume designers - Over and over we see Tienís adversaries battle him in increasingly heavy outfits in the blazing Thai sun, all wearing silly headgear so high and cumbersome they would topple over.  Where Jaa gets a pat on the back from me is in finding the key to the pet peeve Iíve had with every non-Asian film that employs extreme hand-to-hand combat: Jaa is a master of capturing close-up martial-arts fight cinematography.  My constant complaint about every single film that thinks a study of an elbow and frenetic editing equals an exciting fight scene has been stilled by Jaaís use of wonderful staging, choreography and camera placement to elegantly show non-Asian action director wannabes how itís done.  Ong Bak 2ís climatic battle begins with Tien versus two ninjas and is a wonderfully filmed symphony of violence.  Unfortunately, this is followed by an unending plethora of anonymous bad guys in those aforementioned ridiculous outfits, all challenging a mostly victorious Tien, who even recruits the help of a handy pachyderm friend {PSA: We at The Diva Review do not advocate the use of elephants as furniture, weapons or athletic equipment, no matter how cool looking those scenes may have been.}.  Because the villains are so indistinguishable and comically multitudinous, that for as beautiful as the violence is, it feels pretty empty and becomes wearisome after the first 20 minutes.  If Jaa had removed half of those glory shots I mentioned earlier - Thereís Tien standing heroically on a cliff in the sunset.  Thereís another close up of Tien looking moody and mysterious.  Thereís seven minutes of Tien busting some ancient moves infiltrating the enemyís camp disguised as a dancer (Jaaís extremely developed Popeye-like calves give the game away) - the film could have been whittled down to a taut, exciting ninety minutes.  The other thing that must be said is my complete confusion as to why this film is even called Ong Bak 2.  Until literally the very last seconds, you donít really know what connection this story of this prince from the past has to do with the first filmís modern day Jaa recovering the stolen gold idol.  The tacked-on, way-too-convenient explanatory voiceover is just ridiculous and cheapens the already questionable fun.  Why didnít Jaa simply make this a separate, original project instead of piggybacking on his earlier success?   

Eh, petty nitpicking I suppose, when all I really want to see is Tony Jaa doing what he does best and thatís beating the tar out of people, and while burdened with an overly long, sloppily told story, we get that in spades in Ong Bak 2.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

October 23rd, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Magnolia Pictures)

 

 

 

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