Right from the start, it’s clear no expense was spared and no detail neglected in Tony Jaa’s magnum opus actioner, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. The credits brighten and fade in ghostly elegance against the backdrop of aestheticized weapons and idols, opening on a horseback chase tinted in sepia tone. The arrows sail and the hooves fly in adrenaline-inducing beauty. Unfortunately, Ong Bak 2 never gets any deeper than this type of superficial gloss and physical spectacle, resulting in mild and very muddled entertainment.
The film opens in 1421, during a familial struggle for power in the newly formed Ayutthaya Kingdom. Young Tien watches as his mother and father are assassinated, and then escapes through the jungle only to be captured by slave traders. When the stubborn youngster refuses to cooperate, he’s thrown into a pit with an alligator in an impossible fight to the death. As one might expect, the spirited youth kills the alligator, but only with the help of a knife tossed into the pit. This gesture comes from Chernang, king of all the bandits, who sees potential in Tien and takes him on as his adopted son. What follows is the journey from young novice to adult master (played, as in the original, by Tony Jaa) that’s been seen so many, many times in martial arts films. Eventually succeeding his adoptive father as bandit king, Tien gains a thirst to avenge his family and strike out against a (not so) mysterious enemy.
After the international success of Ong Bak (AKA Muay Thai Warrior) and Tom Yum Goong (AKA The Protector), it seemed that Thailand might have its very own Jackie Chan in Tony Jaa; with amazing physical talent and creative ambition, the martial artist was poised to bring Thai film to a broader, international audience. When Jaa signed on to make his directorial debut with the prequel to Ong Bak, sparks began to fly: the media couldn’t help but manifest public anticipation for the film by blowing production problems way out of proportion. When Jaa slunk off into the jungle, literally, and disappeared for two months, you could hardly blame him. And, when he returned, a cloud of doubt hung over the entire project—for good reason. Most martial arts films can survive and sometimes thrive on a very simple, even predictable story, just as long as the fighting remains inspired and kinetic and the actors charismatic. This is exactly how Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the numerous Shaw Brothers have pursued long and successful careers.
But while Ong Bak 2 is certainly simple and the hand-to-hand combat is plentiful, Jaa fails to carry it as an actor or director. Littered with obtuse flashbacks and incongruent plotting, this film is a perplexing mess of themes and tones. The result is a rambling series of vignettes and absurd representations of warrior bravado that never engage the audience from one scene to the next. Taming a herd of elephants, fighting a tiger demon lady, and displaying various styles of martial arts feels too much like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking. If you’re looking for specific continuity between Ong Bak (set in the present) and Ong Bak 2, you may have to wait until Ong Bak 3 — already announced — for clarification. That is, if anyone still has the patience for a third installment after this letdown.