Ong Bak is one of the best martial arts films in recent memory, and is responsible for introducing the world at large to a little guy named Tony Jaa who bludgeoned his way through half of Bangkok’s criminal underground with knees and elbows flying. Ong Bak 2, which was more of a period piece, taking place in 15th century Thailand, was widely renowned as a disappointment for fans of the original. In the time between the two films, Jaa had some widely publicized issues, burned some bridges (most notably with Ong Bak director Prachya Pinkaew), spent some time in a monastery, and took over the director spot. If you need more info on that, a quick Google search should suffice.
After the less than warm critical reception of Ong Bak 2, Ong Bak 3 has understandably been met with a great deal of skepticism. Now, after a brief theatrical run in the US, and a stint on video on demand, Ong Bak 3 has found its way onto DVD thanks to Mark Cuban’s Magnet Releasing, the genre arm of Magnolia. (It’s nice to see a billionaire who knows how to have fun with his money, wouldn’t you do a bunch of ridiculous stuff like yell at NBA officials and release kickass Thai action films if you had nearly unlimited resources?)
Ong Bak 3 picks up where the second installment left off. After a “previously on. . .” style recap, you find the protagonist, Tien (Jaa), chained and being beaten near death with sticks, logs, and fists, just to make sure. However, Tien is not going gently into that good night, and takes a couple dozen assailants down with him in an all out, bone-snapping brawl. This is what Ong Bak 3 has working for it, the fight scenes. Jaa and co-star Dan Chupong are two of the greatest cinematic martial artists currently practicing in the world, and as a result, the fight sequences are nothing short of phenomenal. The combat scenes are not simply badass (though they are plenty badass), but incredibly unique and inventive. You never knew there were so many ways for a man to kick another man in the face, but there are, and you want to see them all.
What doesn’t work in favor in Ong Bak 3 is pretty much everything that doesn’t involve fighting. The film looks good, and is full of intricate costumes and sets, and appears to be in competent hands with Jaa and co-director Panna Rittikrai (Born to Fight, The Bodyguard), but aside from those two things, the rest of the film is barely decipherable nonsense. The story is a collection of randomly connected elements with little to no character development beyond long takes of characters staring, but not speaking, that are supposed to mean everything, but in reality amount to nothing. There is a curse, a crazy raggedy guy, torture, black magic, way too many flashbacks, disembodied voices, and conspiracies. The whole thing is a heavy-handed psychedelic ego trip where Jaa is set up as a Christ figure, packed in mud, bound in bamboo and bandages, and resurrected while his childhood sweetheart dances around.
Quite a bit of time in Ong Bak 3 is spent on dancing instead of fighting, and making vain attempts at spirituality, which leaves too little space for punching, kicking, and the like. However, you are never too far removed from an explosion of martial combat, and the film builds towards a climactic showdown between Tien and Bhuti Sangkha (Chupong), the villain. You can tell Bhuti is a badguy because he drinks elephant blood, and only a dick drinks elephant blood. Don’t worry, this doesn’t spoil anything since you know exactly where things are going right away, to a scene that overflows with everything you wanted when you picked up this DVD. There are flying knees, spinning elbows, Tony Jaa launching off of things, fighting on the backs of elephants, an almost comical level of overkill, and the hero taking out like a hundred cookie-cutter enemies.
If you can suffer through a jumbled plot, uneven pacing, and nonexistent character development, Ong Bak 3 does deliver a healthy dose of kickass action. This time around the focus is more on Jaa’s traditional Muay Thai, rather than in Ong Bak 2, where he incorporated a wider array of fighting styles. It may not always be easy to get to, but once you arrive at the final destination, it was worth the trip. Unfortunately the film never achieves a balance between the two competing sides (the action and “the message”, whatever that may be), and that holds it back from being something more spectacular that it is.
The DVD has a crisp, clear picture, but the only bonus feature, outside of a trailer, is a look at Ong Bak 3 from HDNet (another Mark Cuban venture). While only a few minutes long, the special takes an interesting approach. The segment is hosted by mixed martial arts pioneer Guy Mezger, and he not only talks about the film, but about Jaa’s influence, and the influence of martial arts films on the larger world of combat sports.