Ong Bak: The Beginning review

Tony Jaa steps behind the camera for Ong Bak 2. We sent our own action movie junkie to find out whether it's any good...

One of the greatest things about cinema is its ability to amaze and delight, but every now and then I find my perception of film changed by a cinematic landmark. Over the years I can recall moments, such as the first time I saw a Star Wars film at the cinema (The Empire Strikes Back) and discovered obsession, to the first time my ideal of an action film was shaken by John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Then there was the first time I saw Tony Jaa in Ong Bak.

I’ve been an action movie junkie since I can remember, but not since Bruce Lee could I recall seeing one man defy gravity and display skills as incredible as Tony Jaa’s. In fact, the first time I saw the original Ong Bak holds a special place in my heart, as it marked the first time I had a noise complaint in my flat (a group of us, old enough to know better, spent the entire movie screaming in awe and then trying to elbow each other on the top of the head), but more importantly it added itself to my list of films that simply blew me away. An impressive feat, made more so by the fact I’m so much older and more jaded.

While Jaa’s next film, The Warrior King, delivered a similar level of thrills, the sharpness, humour and originality weren’t quite as good as Ong Bak’s, though I still loved the emotive force behind his quest, which reinforced the one lesson we should have all learnt from his films by now – never steal from Tony Jaa. Ever.

What continues to amaze me about Ong Bak though, is its power to still be as exciting on repeat viewings as it was the first time, so after another dose last year I set about seeing what we could expect next from Jaa and was over the moon when I saw that he was working on a sequel. As I researched further I was a little disappointed to find that Ong Bak 2 was to be a period piece, rather than a direct sequel, looking to have more in common with more contemporary epics such as Hero and House Of Flying Daggers (both of which I love).

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I only use the word “disappointed” as I’d already grown addicted to seeing Jaa run around modern cities, which just added to the wow factor of seeing his skills set in very real settings, as opposed to the more fantastical hyper-realism seen in the movies mentioned above. That said, Ong Bak: The Beginning was a fantastic amount of fun.

I spent most of the film revelling in the incredible variety of martial arts displayed, showing Jaa’s skills taken to another level with the addition of weapons – my face plastered with a ridiculous grin that comes from the sheer awe and delight of violent, cinematic spectacle.

If you think you’ve seen the full extent of Jaa’s brutality in his other films, think again. The film could best be described in one word – massacre. Throats are cut, torn out, and stabbed. And that’s just throats. I don’t think I’ve seen so much arterial spray in a film since the end of Kill Bill. The action is as impressive as you’d expect, as he continues on his one man mission to perform stunts that defy belief, especially when it comes to utilising elephants again, yet this time around the setting does work against him.

The first noticeable problem is the use of the frame dropping technique (made famous in Saving Private Ryan), which seemed unnecessary and immediately starts to detract from the action on screen. It’s directly contrasting the setting of the film itself, especially when the last film I saw use it was Gamer, itself a futuristic film.

When watching Ong Bak, the original concept was to keep things grounded to showcase his unique talents, so the second modern film techniques are employed they stand out and dampen the impact of events on screen. Sadly, it doesn’t stop there, as wire work then makes its presence known and even though Jaa doesn’t seem to use it himself (apart from in one surreal scene where he appears as an evil bird version of himself – more on that in a moment), it’s still a shame as the fighting is the whole point of watching the film, particularly when the plot proves to be the biggest problem of all.

It’s very hard to judge Ong Bak 2, as the film itself is incomplete. The production was riddled with problems, from Jaa’s disappearance to various funding issues and it is very apparent on screen; some events make no sense at all (such as the bird scene I mentioned), a love interest is introduced and then discarded and the impetus behind most characters actions are never really fully explained. Also, be warned – the ending is abrupt and in no way satisfying.

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I appreciate that the lack of funding means that the film had to be cut short, thus forcing a releasable edit out of the footage taken and now know that work is underway on Ong Bak 3, which will hopefully round out the story issues. But still.

Curiously, the press release information stated the run time as 114 minutes, when the screening only lasted for 90 minutes (if that). So there was either a misprint or a last minute cut of a large chunk of the film. It does actually feel as if the run time might have been trimmed to keep the action running at speed, but with Tony Jaa’s name taking up the majority of the films’ credits, I can’t help but wonder if he went a little too overboard on what he wanted to achieve without involving other people, given that the film at various points feels over indulgent and a little too po-faced (just don’t tell the man himself). I didn’t mind that aspect so much, as it felt like a traditional martial arts film. It just didn’t quite manage to reach the artistic height of other comparable historical epics.

Still, I really enjoyed the film from start to finish. The scenes of a young Tien/Tiang (Jaa’s character) being especially strong and if, like me, you’re happy to sit back and be amazed by a consistent amount of incredible, face breaking fights. then you’ll be happy. (I refuse to give any examples as it would spoil the films strongest asset.) Just don’t expect too much more.

I’d love to rate the film higher, bearing in mind I really want it to succeed so that part three is financed and completed to the best possible standard. But what could so easily have been a four star film, has to be marked down when so much of it is missing.


3 out of 5