The first film is certainly the most conventional. Jaa plays Ting, a country boy who travels to the city in order to find and return the head of his village's Ong-Bak idol after it's stolen by a low-level hustler. Upon his arrival in the city, he runs into George (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a former resident of Ting's village who is up to his neck in gambling debts, as well as George's friend and grift partner Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol). Ting's presence in the city (and his unbelievable martial arts skills) help the trio score some dough, but they also catch the attention of a ruthless mob boss (Suchao Pongwilai). Story-wise, the movie's fairly rote and probably a bit too long, stretching its "find-and-retrieve the MacGuffin" story to the limit of the viewer's patience.
Seen today, the way director Prachya Pinkaew revels in every moment of Jaa's acrobatics is a little silly, with the film even offering instant replays of particularly good stunts, but there's no question that Jaa warrants the attention. The film can feel a little primitive, but action-wise, it brings the goods with a number of punishing fight scenes packed with blows that look like they hurt, especially whenever Jaa brings his elbows down into the top of someone's dome. Pinkaew and stunt coordinator Panna Rittikrai shake things up in a number of ways, arming Jaa with staffs and sticks, putting him up against guys of all shapes and sizes, even setting his feet on fire for one short sequence. The least effective is a little motorized taxi chase, which feels pretty pedestrian as far as vehicle chases go.
It's not immediately clear what motivated the filmmakers to take Ong-Bak 2 in a different direction. The first thought would be that another MacGuffin would be repetitive, but Jaa had no problem with that when it came to The Protector, which swapped out Ong-Bak's head for a missing elephant. Frankly, The Protector's contemporary setting and familiar story make it seem more like an Ong-Bak sequel, whereas 2 and 3 could stand on their own as an unrelated period epic. At the time of the second movie's release, paired with the delay caused by Jaa running off into the Thailand jungle, claiming he was retiring from showbiz to become a monk, Ong-Bak 2 was tepidly received, but viewing the sequels now, free of expectation, they're not so bad (although definitely not free of problems, either). At the end of the day, they still showcase plenty of Jaa's physical prowess, which is worthy of a recommendation for action fans, especially considering how bad The Protector 2 is.
The better of the two is the second film, which tells the story of Tien (Jaa), a young man raised by a wise old man named Chernung (Sorapong Chatree) after Chernung watches Tien outsmart his slave trader captors. Tien wants to learn how to be a warrior, and Chernung is more than happy to oblige him, training Tien into adulthood before allowing him to lead their tribe on raids. Tien's anger is focused on Lord Rajasena (Sarunyoo Wongkrachang), who murdered Tien's parents in his quest for power. Tien is also occasionally haunted by Bhuti Sangkha, aka The Crow Ghost (Dan Chupong), a mystical force of evil who hovers over Tien's shoulder, spiritually; and memories of his childhood with the pretty and adventurous Pim (Prarinya Karmkeaw).
The story of both Ong-Bak sequels feels like one two-and-a-half-hour epic stretched into two 90-minute movies. Perhaps it's just my own lack of spirituality, but I have to believe audiences only expect to see so many rituals and dances designed to bring one toward some sort of philosophical peace with the universe. The second film is particularly weighed down with this stuff, drifting terminally away from Jaa's character and the central story of redemption and enlightenment. Many of these sequences, and in fact both films as a whole look fantastic (an incredible increase in style from the original), and I don't want to dismiss the idea that this material has great meaning for Rittikrai, who partners with Jaa to take over directing duties from Pinkaew, and probably Jaa himself. Still, I can't say it's a surprise these films didn't do well at the Thai box office, and it's this material that's probably to blame.
That's a shame, too, because when either of them get going, they offer a number of new and different opportunities for Jaa to show off, including spear fights, chain whips, swords, even leaping off an elephant in order to knee someone right in the solar plexus. There's actually so much action in Ong-Bak 2 it's almost monotonous, which is really saying something. They're not just demo reel material, either; these sequences pack more of an emotional punch than the action sequences in the original because the characters are richer and more complex, even if the cost is spending quite a bit of time being bored by them. The finale of Ong-Bak 2 is surprisingly moving, drawing all of its dramatic threads together in a neat and satisfying way. At no point do the three Ong-Bak films feel cohesive or particularly connected, but at their best, they do connect, both literally and figuratively.
The Video and Audio
In case readers haven't seen the 20th Century Fox disc, well, this is a murky, flat, soft, smeary, and occasionally discolored mess of a transfer that hardly manages to outpace a DVD. The only DVD I owned of the film was a Malaysian import disc that was probably pirated, which I lost nearly a decade ago, so I have no memory of this, but some other comments online suggest the one area in which this version improves is image stabilization, but even if that's true, The Thai Warrior is hardly 10 years old, and even considering its low-budget nature, a fresh scan in optimal conditions really ought to result in a better-looking image than this one. That's aside from The RZA's dull, repetitive soundtrack, which saps the life from sequences like the chase through the market, with the first extended taste of Jaa's abilities. I can't say I'm able to summon the music from that imported DVD to mind, but the new score is flat and uninvolving, as if done on a synthesizer in a couple of hours. The DTS-HD 5.1 sound mix is underwhelming too, with only the new music offering much in the way of crispness -- I'd bet the punch and kick sound effects have been replaced on this mix, and to their detriment.
Transfers for the other two are much better, on par with 2008 / 2010 films, although some issues with reds popping out of overly-bright shadow areas rear their head. The sound mixes are impeccable, with the bass during the second movie capable of rattling the floorboards.