Following the grand Asian-cinema tradition of sequels that have squat to do with the originals, here comes Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, which takes place hundreds of years before its predecessor, and which swaps out Ong Bak’s simple story of a rural youngster beating up urban slicksters, in favor of an epic tale of an ancient warrior learning his craft from a nomadic tribe of jungle bandits. Tony Jaa stars as a nobleman’s son who absorbs the lessons of multiple martial artists on his way to exacting revenge on his father’s killer. As the movie opens, we see the boy abducted by slave traders and tossed into a pit with a crocodile. Then he fights his way out, gets rescued by the bandits, and begins a regimen that involves picking up one skill after another—from mastering various kinds of weaponry to learning how to run atop a herd of elephants—all while hardening his heart and mind so he can be merciless enough to slay an enemy.
This is all fairly typical martial-arts fare, but there are some subtle distinctions—not all of them good. Ong Bak 2 has a distractingly monochrome look, and co-directors Jaa and Panna Rittikrai rely too much on post-production trickery to make the action look artificially fast. And perhaps because Jaa reportedly bolted from the production before it was finished, Ong Bak 2 feels choppy and incomplete, with dull flashbacks padding out the running time leading up to an abrupt cliffhanger ending. In essence, Ong Bak 2 just bides its time between fight scenes and stunt-pieces.
But what sold the original Ong Bak was the action, not the story, and on an action level, Ong Bak 2 lives up to its title. The fight scenes are kinetic and varied, and pick up a unique flavor from the backdrop of meticulously recreated hillside villages. (Even the footing looks different than it does in other martial-arts films.) And the last 25 minutes of the movie are a real thrill, as Jaa fights one menacing bad guy after another, first using a triple-staff the size of three yardsticks, then a sword, then a live elephant as a weapon. Even when Jaa ditches the hardware, he’s dangerous, using his elbows like scimitars and his legs like grasping vines, and executing a maneuver that involves running up people’s torsos so he can kick them in the face. A move like that doesn’t need a plot to justify it.