Ong Bak 2 (2008)

Due for a reappraisal
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-07-26

A child of noble birth is captured by slavers, but proves his fierceness and determination sufficiently that the leader of the Garuda Wing bandits takes him in and trains him in various martial arts, hoping that he will be his successor.

Set 500 years or so before ONG BAK, this pair of prequels provides an origin story for the Ong Bak statue - though you wouldn't know that from the first film. It is also reasonable to assume that Tien, the main character, is an ancestor of Ting - they certainly share an aptitude for busting heads.

In 2003 ONG BAK took the world by storm, catapulting Tony Jaa to international celebrity. It came at a time when Hong Kong had largely stopped making the kind of hard hitting martial arts films it used to excel at, and Jaa found himself carrying the hopes of a global community of action fans on his shoulders.

I think it's fair to say that it went to his head a bit and he decided that he would direct not one but two prequels himself, based on his own story. Before long he'd burnt through the budget without finishing even one of them, had a crisis of faith and walked off set. For a while it was rumoured that he'd walked into the jungle and never been seen again, but it eventually turned out he'd just been back in his home town feeling ashamed. Panna Rittikrai eventually persuaded him to pick himself up, scared up some more funding and helped him get the film finished.

Ong Bak 2 100

ONG BAK spawned a revival for the martial arts genre, so by 2008 other countries and film makers had produced their own spin on it and ONG BAK 2 wasn't carrying the entire weight of fandom alone anymore. It's fair to say expectations were very high though. The film's troubled production and Jaa's ambitions meant that it was inevitably something of a mess when compared to the the original film's taught structure and pacing, and the reception was largely disappointment.

I was certainly in the disappointed camp - even the action seemed like a let down, with overly technical choreography that sacrificed energy to demonstrations of technique. The best fight scenes always tell a story, but the plot here always seems to be "Tony Jaa knows a lot of ways to fuck you up".

Revisiting it now on the German bluray, which does more justice to the film's crisp and vibrant cinematography, I can see that I was unfair. Yes it's a mess, yes the choreography is very technical, but when the technique on display is as good as Tony Jaa's that's not necessarily to be sniffed at.

It's fair to say that Jaa over-reached, he tried to push himself in too many directions and on too many levels, but there's a certain respectability in shooting for the moon even if you end up crashing back to earth. He obviously wanted to make the best movie he could, and you can't say that for every director.

Watching behind the scenes footage I'm not so sure it was rampant ego at fault anymore either - he seems very caring and supportive of the crew, and just really excited about what they're making together.

And looking back on it now, what they were making was pretty damned impressive - the production values are very high and the choreography is something you won't see elsewhere. Jaa was peerless as a performer in his prime, and the variety of styles on display and intensity of the delivery is right up there with the best.