Friday, August 27, 2010

Jaa had me at hello: ONG BAK 3 (2010)

Tony Jaa burst onto the scene in 2003 and quickly became the heir apparent to aging action guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He put the adrenaline back in action and reminded audiences of the inherent beauty in well choreographed fisticuffs that didn’t rely on wires, editing or fancy Hollywood effects. His starring features ONG BAK (2003) and TOM YUM GOONG (2005) – despite some flimsy “you stole something that belongs to me” plotting – put Thailand on the international cinematic map. Perhaps sensing director Prachya Pinkaew’s storytelling limitations, Jaa moved into the director’s chair for the oddly titled prequel ONG BAK 2 in 2006. The production became somewhat troubled as the neophyte director ran over time and budget, with the studio releasing the story unfinished in December 2008. It was a success and the wrap up ONG BAK 3 quickly went into production.

The film picks up right after part 2’s cliffhanger ending with Tien (Tony Jaa) in the clutches of evil Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrachang). After putting up a fight, Tien is tortured, has his bones broken and is sentenced to death. Seconds before his head is to be lopped off, Tien is rescued by a man declaring he must take him. Uh, what? Couldn’t evil Rajasena said no? Or had him killed regardless and go, “Ooops!” Anyway, he bafflingly releases Tien, who is taken to the nearby village to heal but isn’t there long before some of Rajasena’s ninjas show up to kill him. They are quickly dispatched of and a local Buddhist monk says they can revive Tien by performing an old ritual involving making a statue out of melted down gold from the villagers. It works but Tien finds his body crippled when he recovers and must learn to fight all over again. Meanwhile, Rajasena has nightmares about being cursed after poisoning the king to take his crown. He is constantly visited and taunted by the Crow (Dan Chupong), so he decides the best course of action is to kill him. Bad move as Rajasena ends up a foot shorter thanks to a decapitation. The Crow assumes the throne and enslaves the villagers, including love interest Pim (Primorata Dejudom). Apparently all this misery other folks suffer is necessary for Tien to live his destiny as a savior and he heads to the Imperial fortress to whoop some ass.

Released roughly a year and a half after ONG BAK 2, the third film is a letdown. If you’ve followed the film’s production history, ONG BAK 3 isn’t really even supposed to exist, but came into being after producers opted to get the troubled production ONG BAK 2 out to theaters basically unfinished (hence the cliffhanger). For this entry, Jaa co-directed alongside his mentor, stuntman-director-choreographer extraordinaire Panna Rittikrai. Unfortunately, the one thing they didn’t spend time on was the script. The plot is flimsy and harkens back to the basher kung fu flicks where a guy would get beat up, spend an hour training and then unleash the beast on the baddies. ONG BAK 2 was no great shakes when it came to plot, but it at least had some mystery regarding the assassination. Here it is straightforward good guy/bad guy and lots of ponderous dialogue about fate. And don’t get me started on the Crow character. As essayed by Dan Chupong, it is a fantastic character but we have no idea who he is or why he keeps the old king’s corpse in his cave home. Is he the physical embodiment of the curse? Is he a ghost? And why does he spew black CGI mist?

Another problem is that stuff from the first film just seems like an afterthought here. Remember the badass SHOGUN ASSASSIN looking guy in the straw mask at the end of part 2 who only observed the action? They must be building toward a huge confrontation with him and Jaa, right? Nope. He shows again during the siege of the village and is dispatched of in roughly 40 seconds. Granted it is a nice demise, but so much for that daydream of an epic fight. And the long standing love between Tien and Pim doesn't really factor in here at all outside of her teaching him to dance and give him a kiss. They don't even embrace in the end when he frees her. One thing they do expand on is the comedic styling of Petchtai Wongkamlao. For some reason they felt his character cameo from part 2 needed to be expanded upon and give him more screen time here as the village bum. It is pretty obvious the filmmakers were flying by the seat of their pants here and felt they could get away with flimsy plotting due to the action.

And all of this would be forgiven if the action were mind blowing like part 2. Unfortunately, it’s not. It is sad to report that Jaa spends an hour of the film’s 94 minute running time doing nothing! The film opens with him unleashing his fists of fury on some guards and then we don’t see him do anything until the end climax. Audiences want to see Jaa fight and do amazing moves. So to deemphasize that makes this ends up being like porn without the sex! Even I will admit there was some downtime in the two earlier ONG BAK films, but they made up for it every 15 minutes or so with Jaa doing something amazing. In fact, the finest action scene in the whole picture doesn’t even belong to Jaa! It is when Rajasena and his men attack the Crow’s residence and he unleashes the kind of whoop ass Panna has known to bring with guys taking painful falls and hits.

The end confrontation between Jaa and Chupong is also pretty disappointing, given how both guys are great fighters. Tien basically spends the entire time whooping the Crow’s ass. It is the complete antithesis of ONG BAK 2’s ending where he would be beat down and still continue to fight. In fact, I think their brief fight at the end of part 2 on top of the elephant is better than anything they do here. This is Tien fighting the supposed toughest guy in the land, so why does he dispose of him easily in 4 minutes? It should have been an epic encounter but instead ends up feeling rushing, encapsulating this sequel perfectly.

If this sounds a bit too negative, please don’t think that. ONG BAK 3 is a decent film, just a disappointment compared to Jaa’s previous work. You won’t get anything as epic as the style melding fights in ONG BAK 2 or the classic tracking shot in TOM YUM GOONG (aka THE PROTECTOR). The action, however, continues the brutal tone established in the previous entry. One need only look at the bit where Jaa steps on a guards face and then continues to pummel him until his armor shatters. It is violent and bloody action for sure. Unfortunately the film is by the numbers and an attempt from Sahamongkol Films to get a bit more mileage out of their star. In fact, someone could edit parts 2 & 3 together and have a pretty kickass action flick. Here’s hoping Jaa’s recent sojourn into monkhood gives him time to heal, clear his mind and think of better ways to kick ass.

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