[6 August 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Tony Jaa views himself in the mold of a modern day Bruce Lee. But as the world’s foremost Thai martial arts superstar, there is one part of that equation that he is missing: on-screen charisma.
When Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior came out in 2003, it immediately echoed back to Jackie Chan’s great American breakthrough in 1995 Rumble in the Bronx, as both were poorly-plotted action films that just so happened to have jaw-droppingly spectacular fight sequences. Chan famously did all his own stunts without the use of wires or nets, and Jaa wound up doing the same in Ong-Bak, jumping through hoops of barbed wire and doing some astonishing aerial maneuvers while abiding by the rather-cliched “stolen village artifact” plot. The reason people came to see the movie was for Jaa’s combat prowess, and the only wows that people left with were generated by the same.
So while Jaa enjoys his celebrity by being featured in Fast & Furious 7 and trying to get his Protector franchise off the ground (a.k.a. The “Where Are My Elephants?!” Films), a big ol’ Blu-ray box set has been unleashed upon us rounding up the Ong-Bak trilogy, and in glistening clarity, we see the broadening talent of Jaa in numerous aspects, even if he lacks that one thing that truly made Chan and Lee stand out: actual screen presence.
With the original Ong-Bak, we follow Ting (Jaa) as he tries to stop a rare and valuable statue from his village from being stolen and sold off and ... well, the plot doesn’t matter, if we get right down to it (plus, Jackie Chan’s comedy/action masterpiece The Legend of Drunken Master from 1994 already nailed this conceit). The film is held together loosely by its narrative elements (and often dragged down by Phetthai Wongkhamlao’s attempts at comedic relief, even if they proved popular enough to also get him cast in The Protector as well), but it is ultimately defined by its action sequences, of which there are plenty. While a majority of these sequences basically feature variations on the same types of moves, what makes Ong-Bak work at all is the sheer diversity of them, ranging from his immortal arena match to his epic scooter chase to his climatic battle across loose scaffolding. Jaa is wry and nimble, his attacks focused and unique, and he’s fortunately engaged enough to make these sequences work even as his dramatic acting leaves much to be desired.
However, with the film’s sequels, the tone and even setting of the franchise is given an abrupt shift: both were treated as “spiritual prequels,” telling the story of an ancient warrior named Tien who, shaped by numerous forms of martial arts, seeks to protect his people even as a conspiracy mounts against multiple parties trying to seize the title of king, the eventual victor being the devious and highly combative Demon Crow (Dan Chupong), who seeks to keep power at all costs, killing and issuing curses on a maniacal whim. These films contain mercifully less forced comic relief, and, at the hands of Jaa (who co-directs both films), there is a much more striking visual style at hand, especially evident on Ong-Bak 2, which is rife with both color-popping dance sequences and far more cinematic camera angles (not to mention a good deal of well-used slow-motion), giving more fluidity and diversity to the numerous action set pieces.
Yet, even though the story of political backstabbing and bloody coups holds more consistency than that of the original Ong-Bak, the plot and characters remain astoundingly bland, the love interest generic, the only real villain of note being the aforementioned Demon Crow, who manages to be one of the few foes who is truly able to take on Tien one-on-one without much fear of losing. While both films have excessive training montages, there is still a decent amount of solid action to be found here, ranging from 2‘s climactic fight where Tien takes on seemingly every soldier in an entire kingdom to 3‘s failed murder attempt on Tien’s life, where his traumatized body is brought back to this home village and it’s his friends who have to fend off numerous attackers (which, more than anything, shows off Jaa’s greatest assest: his sense of fluid fight choreography, even during long sequences that he’s not in). While Jaa’s stunts in these films don’t contain that same novelty “wow” factor that Ong-Bak had (and later doubled by The Protector), the fights do have some more overall coherence and clarity, avoiding too many quick-edits to instead provide clear, wide-angle shots of the performers doing what they do best (although watching Jaa casually run barefoot across the backs of a heard of elephants is still one hell of a visual).
So while the series has improved in quality, the extras featured on these Blu-rays are still remarkably undercooked. While the original Ong-Bak has a short featurette on Jaa and his stunt crew performing a lot of fight routines live, there’s also a French rap music video that so happens to feature Jaa and a “making of” featurette for said music video. While the sequels do have more in-depth behind-the-scenes features, a surprising amount of it is repeated, as the “Uncovering the Action” featurette in Ong-Bak 3 really consists of nothing more than the same B-roll we already saw in the “Making of a Legend” featurette, just without the narration. Furthermore, the cast & crew interviews feature some somewhat typical prattle about the film’s broad philosophies and the importance of having a Thai-only cast, but all involved make sure to not even hint at the very infamous production history of these two films, ranging from Jaa’s complete mental breakdown which caused him to leave the set for weeks to the financial difficulties that the studio ran into, forcing Ong-Bak 2 to end as a cliffhanger, the funds from its box office success abling production of Ong-Bak 3 to continue as planned.
Overall, Tony Jaa hews closer to the career trajectory of Jet Li than that of either Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, as few can deny his mastery of the form but many can question his on-screen charisma, as there is hardly a non-fighting scene of his that proves worth remembering. Over the course of three films, Ong-Bak‘s pleasures are fleeting, but when those action scenes work like they’re supposed to, they can sometimes be more entertaining than their full-length U.S. counterparts. Tony Jaa still has a long way to go before he becomes a household name (instead of just being the cult action star that he is now), but if the gradual increase of quality of this trilogy proves, Jaa will claim the title of cinematic action champion sooner than later—and who knows, he might just be able to fit in a few more acting lessons between now and then too.