Monday, January 30, 2012

Ong Bak 3

Not that it really matters much, but this American movie poster for Ong Bak 3 is kind of misleading.  For starters, the star of the series is out of costume --- the long hair and rags he sports in the film are nowhere to be seen.  And maybe it is the fact that I grew up with The Karate Kid, but that poster pose made me hope that I would be seeing some super-secret (albeit incredibly unlikely) crane kick action in this movie.  The posters for the film's Thailand release give a more accurate picture as to what this third installment is about:
Photoshop and (presumably) electric guitar solos
For those of you who have not been keeping up with your Thai cinema of late, I'll catch you up on the series.  In Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, a peaceful badass from a podunk town must go to the big city and beat the hell out of a bunch of dudes.  Ong Bak 2: The Beginning bears no relation to the first film and takes place 500 years earlier.  In that film, Tien's family was killed off to allow a mean guy to assume power; Tien, meanwhile, escaped and was adopted by a clan of assassins, who trained him to be the best of the best.  At the end of the movie, Tien succeeded in killing the men who killed his family, but was captured by the bad guy who was responsible for his family's death and profited by it.  And now you're caught up.  Oh, wait...a weird crow-guy with supernatural abilities showed up in the final act to kick Tien's ass, for reasons I haven't been able to figure out.

Ong Bak 3 picks up right where Ong Bak 2 left off.  Tien (Tony Jaa) has been captured by Lord Rajasena's men and they have some fun with him.  Sure, Tien gives almost as good as he gets, but it's hard to win a fight when your arms are tied and the enemy isn't taking any chances.
More intimidating than handcuffs
Rajasena gives the order for Tien to be painfully crippled before being put to death, and Tien's knees, elbows, feet and hands get crushed.  I'm not actually sure if Tien is supposed to have died during these tortures or not, but his broken body is still apparently important.  Some of Tien's buddies show up to try and rescue Tien (a little late to that party), and it looks like they will succeed until Bhuti Sangkha (Dan Chupong), the crow-dude, flies in and murders them all.  He's not on Ranajsena's side, though; apparently, he just likes showing off and killing people.
But he looks so nice!
Anyway, Tien's body is eventually taken to a village, where he is either miraculously resurrected or miraculously healed.  At first, he just mopes around because his joints don't bend in the right directions any more, but with the help of a montage, he returns to his classic form.  Now he just needs to take his revenge on Lord Rajasena.  Too bad Bhuti already killed Rajasena and assumed his powerful position.  Don't worry, though; there is still a big fight at the end, even if the whole revenge angle was more or less negated.

Ong Bak 3 looks an awful lot like Ong Bak 2, and there's a reason for that.  Apparently, the two movies were intended to be one long epic, but budgetary and scheduling limitations forced the story to be split into two parts.  In other words, unused footage from Ong Bak 2 wound up in Ong Bak 3.  If that sounds a little lame to you, I agree.  Thanks to the story limitations, Tony Jaa is kept from fighting for most of the first hour of this 90-minute movie; the first extended action sequence actually features Dan Chupong instead of Jaa.  Chupong is pretty awesome, but that's still pretty lame.  For reasons that I simply don't understand, Ong Bak 3 shifts the focus away from fighting and toward Tien's journey to recovery and mental peace.  Big mistake.

Tony Jaa is not a very good actor.  He's a bad-ass martial artist, but his emotional range goes from "blank stare" to "gritted teeth."  Here, he is forced to act tortured for about forty minutes and try to embody the physicality of someone recovering from horrific wounds.
Jaa manages to impersonate a drunken monkey instead.  I enjoyed Dan Chupong, even though I'm still not sure why he had supernatural powers, or why nobody else seemed confused by that.  Chupong has the potential to be as big of an action star as Jaa, in my mind, assuming he can find a script that calls for beating up dozens upon dozens of henchmen.  The rest of the cast was largely inconsequential.  Tien's love interest from the previous film returns with a larger part and the evil Rajasena came back for a bit, but neither actor was particularly impressive.  Petchtai Wongkamlao returns again, in what I believe is his third character in the three movies.  After being obnoxious in the first film and only making a brief appearance in Part 2, Wongkamlao returns as an apparently mentally handicapped (or possibly very drunk) person; he's not terribly funny here, but it's definitely his best work in the series.
Comic relief sometimes means "stupid wigs"

Ong Bak 3 was co-directed by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, just as the last film was.  This time, though, both men found themselves directing something they do not have much experience with: actors.  Ong Bak 3 is not a long movie, but the vast majority of it focuses on Tien's physical and emotional recovery, while Rajasena suffered from bizarre hallucinations.  There are some basic moral themes at work here (don't be mad all the time, don't betray people, etc.) that take on a religious tone at times.  That's fine, I suppose, but these directors specialize in action choreography, and this film does not have enough of that.

Of course, there are some pretty good fight scenes in Ong Bak 3, and that is what American audiences are probably looking for in this sequel.  How good are they?  That's a tough question.  Production-wise, they look very nice.  The sets are epic and gorgeous, and some of the set pieces are fantastic, especially since Jaa doesn't use wires or CGI (most of the time) in his fight scenes.
So...real big elephant, real small action star
I was disappointed by how choreographed most of the fight scenes felt.  The second film's action scenes were great --- they were gory and weird and fantastic.  While the plot gives an explanation for the choreography (it has to do with traditional Siamese dancing), it doesn't come close to matching the fury that made the second film's fights so cool. 
As Danny Kaye would say, "They're doing choreography"
There is also significantly less gore in this sequel, which made me a little sad.  When you combine the downturn in action with a confusing story that relied on action stars to convey emotions, you wind up with an underwhelming product.  I was looking forward to Ong Bak 3, but it doesn't quite cut it.

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