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Ong-Bak 2 (Tony Jaa, 2008)
Thai martial arts expert Tony Jaa delivers his most impressive kung-fu epic yet with the stylish and garish Ong-Bak 2. Set in the year 1421, this movie features no direct plot connections to its contemporary precursor, but it’s unlikely that many fans are likely to mind, given that the action here is of such a consistently high quality. Whether dancing across a herd of elephants, literally climbing up the walls during a cave battle against a witch, or staging a fight scene that makes its way onto an elephant’s tusks, Jaa outdoes himself here. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that any two viewers will come out of Ong-Bak 2 agreeing on a favorite action sequence, since there are so many contenders to choose from.
By Thai standards, Ong-Bak 2 had a massive budget, and that financial backing certainly helped the film out visually. Each of its period backdrops is vividly realized. There’s always something to look at, whether a scene is taking place in a lush jungle or at a gritty slave camp. The cast of villains are an extraordinarily gruesome bunch. Each of them registers as a genuine threat. This is Jaa’s first turn as director, and his choices, while unsubtle, mostly serve to amplify the visceral impact of the movie. CG blood effects are used throughout, and while one would expect them to be distracting, they are well done, and contribute to the realism of the combat greatly. It’s a simple fact that a sword swipe becomes more threatening when a brutal arterial spray follows a successful strike. Somewhat more off-putting is Jaa’s liberal use of slow-motion footage. At times, the film feels like an endless montage of tobacco spit, sweat, and blood, which is shown gradually dripping. This sort of visual panache might have worked better if it were more restrained.
For some viewers, Ong-Bak 2’s cliffhanger ending might be seen an odd, frustrating choice, given that there was no continuity between the first and second films in this series, but it’s unlikely that many will feel short-changed after witnessing Ong-Bak 2’s mighty display of Jaa’s prowess. Ong-Bak 2 is unapologetically a showcase for Jaa’s talents. His film’s focus on his athleticism renders its standard issue revenge plot somewhat irrelevant, especially since his action set pieces are among the best that the kung-fu genre has offered in recent years. An effort that handily trumps the first in every respect, Ong-Bak 2 further cements Tony Jaa’s status as one of the era’s key action stars.