Review: Ong Bak Trilogy

Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.

I watched Ong Bak 3 last night, thinking that since it was the last martial arts film of recent years on my must-watch list that reviewing it would make for a fitting end to the unofficial chop-socky marathon I’ve been taking part in. How wrong I was. Ong Bak 3 is a mess of a movie, and it doesn’t even feature much of Tony Jaa’s amazing fighting and acrobatics. I guess one could assert that there’s a story at the heart of the film, but I’m not sure what that story was, as it wasn’t told in any coherent fashion. So rather than try to tackle the cinematic gibberish that is Ong Bak 3 on its own, I’ve decided that the proper thing to do would be to review the entire Ong Bak trilogy. I firmly believe that the only reason to make a trilogy is to have the grand, overarching story that transpires over the course of all three films become more than just the sum of its parts. In a perfect trilogy, every film should be able to stand on its own as a good movie, but when combined with the other two parts of the series, become something even more – a chapter in a saga. That’s the best case scenario, and you can see some great examples of it in some of the best trilogies of all time: the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy, and the Back to the Future trilogy. Please note that this is probably the only time that the Ong Bak trilogy will be compared to those classics, as it is nowhere near as good. But I did enjoy it more than the new Star Wars movies, so I guess there’s that.

Before I get into reviewing each of the Ong Bak movies, I’ve gotta say – this is one strangely structured trilogy. Ong Bak is, chrononlogically, the last film in the series, whereas Ong Bak 2 is the first, taking place many years before the events of Ong Bak. Confused yet? It will only get worse, since Tony Jaa is the star of all three films, even though there’s a huge gap in the time periods between part one and part two. We’re left to sort of assume that his character in Ong Bak, Ting, is the descendent of his character in Ong Bak 2, Tien, though by the end of Ong Bak 3 it’s entirely possible that Ting is actually the reincarnated spirit of Tien, or even Tien himself resurrected through black magic!

So let’s start with Ong Bak. Ong Bak was the movie that first brought Tony Jaa to the viewing public’s attention. There was a lot of hype surrounding this film, as it used no wires or CGI to enhance Jaa’s incredible stunts, and I remember seeing previews for it in theatres even though it never got a theatrical release in my area. The film is basically a showcase for Jaa’s amazing talents, and is little more than a series of fight scenes strung together with some flimsy plot. But there is a plot here, so I’d better go over it.

The title Ong Bak refers to the name of a statue of Buddha in the small Thai village where Tony Jaa’s character Ting has grown up. The village is extremely poor, and the only thing of value is their sacred statue. The village also seems to breed atheletes of incredible skill, of which Ting is the best. After the Ong Bak’s head is stolen by some shady guys from Bangkok, it is up to Ting to retrieve it, and he sets off for Bangkok to meet with his cousin Humlae who left the village many years ago to live in the big city. Once he arrives in Bangkok, Ting discovers that Humlae has become a scam artist along with his squealy female cohort Muay Lek, betting money on whatever he can and generally making poor decisions. It isn’t long before Humlae, who has renamed himself George (though in my version of the movie he calls himself Dirty Balls), steals Ting’s money and bets it on a bareknuckle boxing match. When Ting tries to get his money back, he is pulled into the fight and quickly beats the reigning champion, and it is revealed that the guy who runs the underground boxing matches is the same guy who ordered the Ong Bak’s head to be taken. From here on in, the movie is basically action set piece after action set piece. There’s a terrific chase scene where Ting leaps over and under cars and flips through narrow spaces as goons follow him. There are lots of arena-style fight scenes where it’s just Ting fighting one other combatant, and there are a few scenes where he takes out several with some conveniently placed weapons. There’s even a scene where Ting sets his legs on fire and kicks a bunch of people. It’s all pretty impressive, and Jaa’s martial arts and acrobatics are breathtaking. The film ends, of course, with Ting getting back the head and returning to his village.

As I said, Ong Bak really isn’t a movie so much as a highlights reel. Director Pratchya Pinkaew (who I mentioned in my review of Chocolate) doesn’t seem to even know what a plot is, but he has a good eye for action, so all of the fights and chases – and there are many – are well worth the price of admission when it comes to Ong Bak. After seeing this film, I was sure that Tony Jaa was going to be the next Jackie Chan or Jet Li. I remember watching the best bits of the movie with my friends and wincing and cheering every time Jaa landed a particularly stylish blow. The fights are so brutal that you just know the stuntmen fighting Jaa got hurt all the time, and many of the villains of Ong Bak sport ridiculous hairdos as a result of covering the helmets that the actors were wearing. With all the elbow-to-the-skull hits that Jaa dishes out, I know I’d insist on one before going into a scene with him!

In between Ong Bak and Ong Bak 2, Tony Jaa made The Protector (a.k.a. Tom Yum Goong), and I find it interesting how many things from The Protector became Jaa’s trademarks. The big one is Jaa’s connection to elephants. The Protector basically has the same plot as Ong Bak, with Jaa’s favourite elephant being stolen by some big-city crime lord, and Jaa kicking everyone’s asses until he gets it back. Much like Ong Bak, the action is plentiful, the actor who played Humlae/George/Dirty Balls (Petchai Wongkamlao) is back, this time as a police officer, and the structure of the film is practically identical. I’m honestly surprised that The Protector wasn’t just titled Ong Bak 2.

Now we get to Ong Bak 2, the prequel to Ong Bak, and already we’re not making a lot of sense. By this point, Tony Jaa had replaced Pratchya Pinkaew as director, and the studio had given him a considerably larger budget to work with. All of these changes are instantly apparent when you watch the film. The cinematography is much better, and the film has some great use of colour. Likewise, the period sets and costumes make this feel very different from Ong Bak. But the one thing that is the same is Tony Jaa, and he certainly kicks a lot of ass in Ong Bak 2. Whereas Ong Bak mostly showcased Jaa’s acrobatic abilities and his talent for hand-to-hand fighting, Ong Bak 2 is a showcase for Jaa’s ability to use any weapon handed to him.

Ong Bak 2 is the story of Tien (Jaa), the young son of a murdered Thai nobleman and king of the elephants (no seriously, they all kneel before him). Sold into slavery at a young age, Tien is defiant in the face of the slave driver who owns him, which leads to him being tossed into a pit of crocodiles. While he’s fighting the crocodiles and struggling to avoid being eaten, however, a gang of bandit martial artists known as the Pha Beek Khrut invade the town where Tien is being held and kill everyone except Tien. Impressed at Tien’s warrior spirit in the face of danger, the leader of the Pha Beek Khrut takes Tien under his wing, and the bandits each teach Tien their own fighting styles. As Tien grows up to be the deadliest man alive, his desire to visit vengeance upon the evil lord who murdered his father grows. But first, he tracks down the slaver who tormented him and kills him. Yep. Just like that. Then Tien poses as a dancer in order to infiltrate the evil lord’s castle and quickly dispatches the lord, but when he returns to the Pha Beek Khrut camp, he finds it deserted. Suddenly, wave after wave of masked assassins pour out of the woodwork and Tien spends the final, solid half hour of the movie fighting with a variety of weapons. After murdering lots and lots of people, Tien discovers that he has been betrayed by his mentor, who actually works for the evil lord (who is actually alive, having survived thanks to some armour under his robes) as a kind of bodyguard and hired assassin. The film ends on a huge cocktease of a cliffhanger as Tien kills his mentor and is surrounded by the evil lord’s soldiers.

The production values and awesome fights aren’t nearly enough to save Ong Bak 2 from mediocrity. The film is pretty imbalanced, with most of the fighting being backloaded onto the final half hour, and Tien is such a bastard by the end (having been raised by bandits and all) that you don’t really feel any sympathy for the guy as he is betrayed by his teacher. I mean, c’mon, the guy was a criminal to begin with – the fact that he stabbed Tien in the back really isn’t much of a stretch. The cliffhanger ending is also a major anticlimax, and to be honest, I didn’t care at all that I had to wait for Ong Bak 3 to come out.

Ong Bak 3 gives us the concluding chapter of the Ong Bak trilogy, and it’s a good thing too, because Ong Bak 3 is easily the worst of the movies. In case it hasn’t become clear by now, the only reason to watch a Tony Jaa movie is the action sequences, and Ong Bak 3 barely has any to speak of. In a 90 minute film, maybe 15 minutes are dedicated to fights. In a Tony Jaa film, anything less than a half hour of fights is a tragedy.

Ong Bak 3 picks up directly after Ong Bak 2. Tien is captured and tortured again and again by the evil lord, breaking most of his bones. Somewhere in there, the evil lord gets cursed and begins fearing for his life as he is tormented by a Crow-like warrior who popped up briefly during the final fight of Ong Bak 2, but didn’t even say anything before leaving. Just before Tien is finally executed, a messenger arrives declaring that he has been ordered to return Tien to his village. Meanwhile, the Crow guy is revealed to be some kind of evil wizard who embues himself with black magic powers. The few Pha Beek Khrut that Tien didn’t kill invade the village where he is being tended to and try to assassinate him, but are fended off by some of the local martial artists. Tien still dies but is resurrected by a local necromancer, except Tiens bones are all broken, so he has to reset them by stretching. Then he grows a beard, re-learns martial arts, and sets off to fight the evil lord. Only by now the evil lord has been killed by the Crow guy, and in one of the best scenes of the movie, the Crow dude decapitates the lord and the lord’s severred head curses him! The film ends with a prolonged fight scene between the Crow guy and Tien, and after Tien rewinds time to avoid being killed by a thrown spear, lightning strikes the Crow guy and Tien does him in. Somewhere in there, the Buddha from Ong Bak is forged.

In case you hadn’t gathered, Ong Bak 3 is a complete and utter mess. The plot doesn’t make any sense and is nearly impossible to follow, and once again the bulk of the fighting has been backloaded onto the end of the movie. Except here there’s only the tiniest amount of action, and the rest is impossible-to-understand plot developments. I should also mention that Petchai Wongkamlao is back again in both Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3 as the village idiot from Tien’s village, and he’s completely out of place in his stupid wig.

Alright, I’m getting tired of talking about Ong Bak 3, just because I feel like it was a big waste of my time. Even Tony Jaa’s awesome fighting couldn’t save it, and I nearly fell asleep a couple of times just because it was so very, very boring.

The Ong Bak trilogy doesn’t work as a trilogy at all. The first movie was a great introduction to Tony Jaa’s skills and had action all the way through. The second one was somewhat entertaining, and the long and brutal fight scene at the end made it worth watching. But the third film is just so pointless, and you can tell it wasn’t made with much enthusiasm. Following the release of Ong Bak 3, Tony Jaa announced that he was retiring from the film business to become a monk, and I was sad to hear it because the guy is undeniably talented. Watching Ong Bak 3, though, really showed me that he had lost his passion for filmmaking, and while I’m still sad to see him go, perhaps it’s for the best. I’d much rather he stop making movies altogether than continue making bad ones.

Ong Bak
Action: 5 out of 5
Overall: 3 out of 5

Ong Bak 2
Action: 4 out of 5
Overall: 2.5 out of 5

Ong Bak 3
Action: 2.5 out of 5
Overall: 1 out of 5

Ong Bak Trilogy
3 out of 5

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