The 2003 film “Ong Bak” and its exhilarating 2005 successor “The Protector” left no doubt there was a new force in the martial-arts arena: Tony Jaa, a Thai star whose stunts were truly mind-blowing.
The road to Jaa’s “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning” was a rough one: He split with his original director, took over co-directing duties himself and, at one point, walked off the set of the picture for an extended time out.
You might expect the resulting movie to be a mess and you’d be right. But you don’t go to a film like this for its storytelling nuance or thoughtful characters.
You go to a movie like this to learn whether a man can out-wrestle a crocodile, do a somersault over an elephant and drop three stories onto a bamboo platform. And much, much more.
In that spirit, we won’t bother with the flashback-y plot, except to note that the film is set in the 15th century and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the first “Ong Bak.”
Oh, and revenge is involved.
Tony Jaa co-directed with his longtime fight choreographer Panna Rittikrai and they’ve come up with some doozies. The amazing thing about their martial-arts scenes is how inventive they can be about using the human body: Everything exists in a madcap flow, rather than isolated moves.
Jaa’s previous director, Prachya Pinkaew, used long, unbroken takes to depict his star’s agility and that style is missed here. But you can still verify Jaa’s talents — there’s little fakery involved.
Jaa has one scene in which he dispatches a series of baddies while lying on his back, others in which he fights a morphing female ninja who becomes part panther and part crow and another in which he performs a masked Thai ballet before exploding in violence.
Through it all, he displays the fiendish focus of his idol, Bruce Lee. Jaa is so intense he looks like a guy who’ll burn himself out before long — he doesn’t have the comedy safety valve that keeps Jackie Chan going.
The stunts involving elephants are impressive, for sure, although I suspect American audiences might be more concerned with the animals than with the admittedly astonishing sight of Jaa jumping from one stampeding elephant’s back to another, like a cowboy leaping the stagecoach horses in a western.
The filler between the action is fairly tedious, although the production values are improved over Jaa’s previous movies. The ending might take people by surprise, but don’t worry. “Ong Bak 3” is already in production.