Tony Jaa Gets Zen
Martial arts sensation Tony Jaa and his creative collaborator Panna Rittikrai appear determined to tell an actual serious story with Ong Bak 3, the direct sequel to the tale begun in Ong Bak 2. In the previous film, we got hints that they were trying to thwart the usual expectation of a martial arts action pic, in which awesome fight scenes are priority number one and story is much less important. There, if it seemed an epic story was trying to make its way out, then Ong Bak 3 confirms it, since it begins with religious overtones, as the captured hero, Tien (Jaa), gets the life beat out of him, only to later somehow wind up in the hands of a Buddhist monk (Nirut Sirichanya) and put on the path to recovery and enlightenment.
So what about the action? It's there, though mostly in the beginning and the ending -- and, frankly, there's not much variety in it. Only three fights are staged before the third act, and only one of them features Jaa. One fight highlights this film's bad guy, Bhuti Sangkha (Dan Chupong), and -- like the Jaa fight -- features one man taking out a gang of swordsmen. Thankfully, the ending is worth a look, mainly due to what I call the "A Touch of Zen concept" -- the idea of an enlightened warrior calmly deflecting all manners of violent attack with superior physical command while barely breaking a sweat. There's something strangely satisfying about such a sight; and if that doesn't do it for you, the sequence in which Jaa defeats multiple enemies while hopping about atop several elephants should. Finally, there is a one-on-one battle, an occasion sadly found to be more and more rare in these movies.
Ong Bak 3 retains Ond Bak 2's problem of not living up to the eye-popping jaw-dropping promise of the first Ong Bak, but by now it's pretty clear Jaa and Rittikrai were never attempting that. They wanted to balance the spectacle with a very serious tale of a man reaching the point where he rejects aggression and anger. As channeled through martial arts films which highlight the battles, the conviction behind this concept, of course, isn't very convincing, and it leaves Ong Bak 3 as an awkward hybrid of sincere fable storytelling denouncing angry violence and a demonstration of the martial arts skills of both Jaa and Chupong. At the end, I'd say the "enlightened" defensive fighting of Jaa, whose screen presence is more crucial than ever here in selling this scenario, pulls it off -- but just by a hair.
(Released by Magnet Releasing and rated "R" for strong violence and bloody images.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.