PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Film

Killer Choreography Consumes the 'Ong Bak Trilogy'

Tony Jaa still has a long way to go before he becomes a household name, but as this box set proves, he's well on his way—and may just be able to afford an acting lesson or two as well.


Ong-Bak 3

Distributor: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Dan Chupong
US release date: 2014-07-29

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.