Film Review: Ong Bak 2

Orphaned prince becomes outlaw warrior in a well-mounted showcase for martial arts superstar Tony Jaa.

A hit throughout Southeast Asia when it was released last year, Ong Bak 2 is a throwback to the kung fu flicks of a previous generation. First-rate action scenes alternate with florid melodrama, and jaw-dropping stunts try to compensate for saccharine plot twists. An excellent vehicle for martial-arts champ Tony Jaa (the screen name for Panom Yeerum), Ong Bak 2 will please action fans while drawing barely a glance from mainstream viewers.

The original Ong Bak, which also starred Jaa, was a thriller set in present-day Bangkok and dealing with smuggling, poaching, drugs, and slavery. While it hits on many of the same topics, Ong Bak 2 takes place in the 15th century and is built around a political feud between decadent rulers and their opponents. Jaa plays Tien, forced on the run as a child after his parents are murdered, and then raised in a rebel gang led by Chernung (Sorapong Chatree). Headquartered in a majestic jungle hideout, the Garuda Wing Cliff rebels operate much like Robin Hood's men, staging raids on local despots and liberating enslaved peasants. Tien works his way up to leader of the gang, then sets out on his own quest for vengeance.

It takes almost a half-hour for Jaa to appear onscreen, and for large stretches his acting, including his fighting, feels a bit perfunctory. Kung fu aficionados will appreciate the sequences showing Tien's martial-arts training, captured in loving detail. But Jaa's mastery of several different schools of kung fu will mean next to nothing to many viewers, who may justifiably wonder what all the fuss is about at first. Still, the action is surrounded by impressive filmmaking. Jaa jumps across a herd of elephants, leads attacks on enormous castles, takes part in elaborate ethnic dances, supported all the while by strong production design, wonderful costumes and assured editing.

Jaa left the acting and comic relief to other performers in the first Ong Bak; he's basically the whole show here, apart from a ripe turn by Chatree as a sort of Fagin for swordsmen. Like the original, Ong Bak 2 leads up to a slam-bang finale in which Jaa takes on dozens of opponents in a fight to the finish. Here's where his skill and dedication come into focus. Even the most jaded viewer can't help but be astonished at Jaa's athleticism as he leaps, spins, flips, and at one point takes a three-story fall. You are not likely to see a better display of martial-arts combat onscreen for some time, even if you have to put up with some excruciating contrivances to get to it.