You won’t find the term “death defying” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, but if the editors were to add it to the next edition, it would be fitting to place a picture of Tony Jaa next to the definition. That’s because Tony Jaa shocked the world in 2003 when he performed acrobatic muay Thai and jaw-dropping stunts for Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior. Even Jackie Chan, one of Tony Jaa’s childhood heroes, expressed his admiration.
Now, Tony Jaa’s back with the far more ambitious Ong Bak 2. Don’t let the number fool you, though, because it’s not really a sequel. The film is set in 15th-century feudal Thailand, where Lord Rajasena hungers for more power. First stop on the road to total domination: Kill a regional commander, Lord Sihadecho, and his family.
Learn more about the original martial arts movie star with our FREE guide—Our Bruce Lee Movies List: Little-Known Trivia From Bruce Lee’s Pictures.
But Sihadecho’s teenage son, Tien, survives the massacre and is rescued by Chernung, chief of a group of outlaws. Impressed by the kid’s fighting spirit and sensing his higher calling, Chernung allows Tien to live among them and learn their martial arts—and, boy, do they know a lot of martial arts.
Chernung’s village is made up of masters from around the world. By the time Tien is fully grown (and now played by Tony Jaa), he’s the only one to successfully combine their litany of styles, including Chinese drunken fist, Indonesian pentjak silat, Japanese jujutsu, Polynesian wrestling and the predecessor to muay Thai, muay boran.
Did the Thai practitioners of that era cross-train with warriors from other nations? Yes, because open trade routes allowed for the exchange of military culture, as well. But did a kind of Olympic village of masters exist? Probably not.
Still, Tien is a joy to watch. It’s such a treat for me as a martial arts addict to dissect each brawl, linking each move that Jaa uses to a specific style and studying how he melds them together.
In the climactic set piece, Tien takes on dozens of ninja-like assassins, and he smoothly switches from the tiger and crane strikes of hung gar and the leg trapping of harimau silat to the blade art of krabi krabong and the deadly swordplay of kenjutsu.
Speaking of blades, Tony Jaa cooks up an all-you-can-eat buffet of weapons combat, which includes the three-sectional staff and rope dart. Although he might not be as crisp with the Chinese weapons as Jet Li, Tony Jaa definitely shows a maturity and willingness to take creative risks. That gives me hope that he’ll someday craft the kind of martial arts epic that will make him a global household name.
Unfortunately, Ong Bak 2 is not quite that film.
Don’t get me wrong: Tony Jaa’s directing is deft. Mirroring the way he uses a range of fighting styles, he flows from one filming technique to another—crane, dolly, hand-held and wide shots—without ever obscuring the action. And his co-director, Tony Jaa’s longtime stunt mentor Panna Rittikrai, works seamlessly behind the scenes to showcase his star pupil. But no matter how amazing their talents, they’re not enough to mask the screenplay flaws.
Ong Bak 2’s plotline is pretty obvious, the main villain is a cartoon character, the supporting cast is loaded with cardboard cutouts and Tien lacks any real character development. Plus, it offers up a weak, last-minute thematic connection to the first Ong Bak, feeling more like a “hurry up, we’re running out of film stock” conclusion than a well-written cliffhanger ending.
Still, fans will enjoy this ambitious import. The action style is a real ode to martial arts movie classics but still packs plenty of modern stunts to push the genre further. Let’s hope Ong Bak 3, which is in production, will be Tony Jaa’s true magnum opus.
(Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)