With Jackie Chan too old to do anything but make family films and Jet Li swearing off martial arts, the fight-film mantle is left to Thai sensation Tony Jaa. As we saw in 2003’s “Ong-Bak” and 2005’s “The Protector,” he’s more than happy “ and damned capable “ to pick it up.
Now there’s the hyphen-free “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning,” which really has no business “ other than financial interest “ in being numbered as such. It’s an inferior but insane period-piece prequel set hundreds of years earlier, thus with none of the same characters. Jaa, however, returns to play the lead, Tien.
When we first see Tien as a kid, there’s no doubt he’s scrappy, as he fights a crocodile. Read that again: He fights a crocodile. An old guy with creepy, milky-white eyes is impressed, as he should be. After all, he fought a croc-o-dile. With teeth.
Having become an orphan when his dad was killed, Tien grows up to give a big dose of payback to the evil guy who left him parentless. Along the way, he acquires and masters many a martial art, including running up an elephant, tusks first, and slapping it on the head into submission. Why? Because it’s awesome. Oh, and because it’s an agility test. Oh, and because it’ll come in handy in the final showdown. Oh, and because Thai cinema loves its pachyderms “ get used to it.
But before that third act, there’s lots of frantic, frenetic action, including sparring with a hissing, witch-like being at the bottom of a pit. “Ong Bak 2″ is the kind of movie where story is secondary on purpose, and the viewer is totally cool with that. Such a thing is achievable only when you have a physical talent as dazzling as Jaa on display. Like Chan or Li at the peak of their powers, he is the real deal, whether dueling barefoot, fighting with swords, or doing a whole mess of what Seann William Scott so memorably deemed “spinning Tarzan jujitsu” in “The Rundown.”
Like anything that moves so fast, however, “Ong Bak 2″ eventually runs out of breath, right when it hits the one-hour mark and then realizes it still has 30 minutes to go. A shot of romance doesn’t work, and a performance slow dance is too slow, as is the costumed ceremony that follows. Heck, so is the protracted battle that essentially comprises the rest of the picture. Yet we can’t discount it entirely, giving Jaa the opportunity for what may be the flick’s signature shot. In it, he jumps off an elephant backward in slow-motion and does an aerial somersault, only to plant his feet squarely in the face of his enemy on the ground below. (And Chan thinks audiences want to see him babysitting kids? Ha!)
Magnet’s DVD contains more extras than are usually afforded the chopsocky genre, including a whole other disc with an alternate cut of the 2008 feature. Numerous behind-the-scenes stuff proves superfluous, but there’s a nugget in the trailer for the already in-the-can “Ong Bak 3.” In the 90-second preview, Jaa gets the bejeezus kicked out of him, only to re-emerge with “more force, more fury, more vengeance.”
And more elephants. “Rod Lott