Ong Bak: The Beginning Review

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Ancient Thailand. Snatched by slave-traders after his parents are assassinated, orphaned nobleman Tien (Jaa) is rescued by the leader of a guerrilla fighting outfit and smelted into an iron-hard warrior. When Tien finally comes of age, he leaves camp swearing bloody, chopsocky revenge.


No pain, no gain... seems like Tony Jaa, one of the great wonders of the action world, is only human, after all. Claiming his own Coppola-style heart-of-darkness meltdown in the murky Thai jungles, the pressure of directing, starring and fighting in Ong Bak 2 nearly crushed Jaa, who abandoned set for two months. Shooting the movie sounded like one long brawl. Watching it is like being in the thick of one.

With its gritty jungle setting, spare dialogue and grungy warring tribes, the feel of this thundery vengeance epic is, quite unexpectedly, of a kung-fu Apocalypto. Set centuries apart, in a new era and with a new hero, it certainly bears little resemblance to the light-footed original that launched Jaa. While Ong Bak 3 (shooting now) promises to tie things up plot-wise, the car-hurdling and knockabout joys are long gone, replaced by a grimacing heaviness. If Ong Bak was his Jackie Chan movie, this, you guess, is his Bruce Lee one, with Jaa reprogrammed to a colder, harder persona. The movie built around him is so brooding and ominous it holds a deep, serious frown throughout, and fully expects you to follow suit. Which, considering Jaa’s opponents include a roaring cat-witch, a phantom crow and a guy with a bin on his head, is a big ask.

Mind you, if Jaa himself is nowhere near as engaging, his back-to-basics action mantra (no effects, no wire-fu, no doubles) still packs a primal wallop. You just keep wishing the pace was as streamlined as the moves. In an attempt to ‘epic up’ a basic tale of revenge, the rhythm gets constantly thrown off by a series of long-winded flashbacks that stunt the brute impact of any preceding action riff. Instead of a steady rush of blood, you get a regular pulse.

In fact, it’s not until the final third that the film delivers its promised shot of adrenalin, not to mention a long-overdue sense of peril from the shatterproof Jaa. Somewhere in Thailand is a foley artist with early onset arthritis — at nearly 25 minutes, the climactic chopsocky blow-out allows Jaa to unleash a multitude of moves and weapons, shot in a thrillingly no-nonsense, Shaw Brothers style. Climaxing with a back-flip kick off an elephant’s trunk, it’s by some distance the year’s best fight sequence. Is it worth the wait? Well, like we said: no pain, no gain...

Jaa’s period ‘beatquel’ is thick on action but thin on plot. Awesome final fight, though.