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Ong Bak 2: The Beginning
Here's a reaction sure to be popular at "Ong Bak 2: The Beginning" viewings near and far: huh?
Clarity is in short supply here for this unexpected prequel, an abstract action bend that has no time for coherency. Appreciate the picture as more of a silent film adventure and it's a blast, furthering the curious career of Tony Jaa, who steps behind the camera to co-direct this often exhilarating but supremely baffling martial arts picture.
Hundreds of years ago, a young boy named Tiens (Tony Jaa) was the son of a powerful nobleman, who pushed his son to learn the art of dance over the boy's choice of martial arts. When trouble invades Tiens's village and his parents are killed, the boy takes off into the jungle, only to be captured by slave traders. Proving himself useful in a fight, Tiens is trained by his captors to become a powerful warrior, joining a team of pirates as they tear across the land. Losing himself to immorality, Tiens struggles to sort out his past, targeting the new king for death.
2003's "Ong-Bak" was Jaa's debutante ball, introducing the young limb-snapper to a global audience blown away by his incredible Muay Thai skills, making the picture more of a martial arts demonstration reel than a feature film. Still, the limber eruption was gold, developed to a finer point of melodrama in Jaa's berserk follow-up, "The Protector." While plagued with more behind-the-scenes problems than you could shake a broken femur at, "Ong Bak 2" has been seen to completion (more or less), and while the story is a blur, the action remains in a state of euphoria.
A rather involved period piece, Jaa (along with co-director Panna Rittikrai) angles for a romantic mood of royal betrayals and stolen innocence. The film is gorgeously shot and imagined, with sweeping Thai vistas and hefty set pieces of destruction, acting as an ideal catalyst for the eventual path of revenge. "Ong Bak 2" is a far more ambitious film than its predecessor, purposely wiggling away from modern day heroics to set a primal tone, permitting the action a more volatile backdrop to work with. The film isn't completely incomprehensible, but it jumps around needlessly, losing sight of proper velocity. Jaa doesn't want to offer his fans junk food, and that's a respectable goal; however, "Ong Bak 2" is a thinly constructed film, with a few changes in focus crippling the intended spark of spiritual punishment.
As much as Jaa tries to inch away from a straightforward routine of action beats with this picture, his way of the fist is something truly magical. "Ong Bak 2" lets loose a few times during the show, the best being Tiens and his severe, applause-worthy takedown of a swarm of marketplace baddies. The Muay Thai moves, with blunt leg kicks and soaring bodies, remain a perfect martial art for the medium, displaying an unreal splendor beneath the bone-cracking mayhem. The picture isn't wall-to-wall action as hoped, but when it does decide to crack its knuckles and start rumbling (the swordplay is equally as wild as the hand-to-hand action), the fight sequences are as thrilling as anything Jaa has committed to the screen before.
Included on this Blu-ray is an "Alternate Cut," which is essentially a European re-edit of the film, from Luc Besson's company EuropaCorp. The differences between the Theatrical Cut (97:50) and the Alternate Cut (88:27) boil down to a streamlining of the action beats to best appeal to casual audiences.
The VC-1 encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) for this BD straddles a weird line between clarity and artificiality. The presentation is welcoming for the most part, with the film's amber colors nicely capturing the mythical mood of the piece. Skintones are heightened but useful, glistening wonderfully at times, which help to bounce light all around the frame. A good portion of the film has been dipped in the ink of step printing, which provides a smeary quality the BD is more than eager to follow. The image doesn't quite leap out at the viewer as desired, lacking a dimensionality the script is promising. "Ong Bak 2" doesn't look subpar, only restrained, absent needed film texture to bring it a special verve.
The DTS-HD 5.1 mix is expectedly active, downright bonkers at times with all the flying fists and feet. Body blows register beautifully, providing healthy LFE response to the listening experience, while sharp sound effects fill the ears with a crisp, cracking bite. The violence sounds deep and vital, making itself known in a soundtrack of environmental activity and shouted/grunted dialogue, with strong atmospheric presence in the surrounds. It's chaos, but nicely pronounced and separated, clearing away the confusion. An English-dubbed track is also included.
English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
"The Story and Character of an Epic" (7:27), "Revealing the Majesty" (6:37), and "The Art of War" (7:01) act as introductions to the world of "Ong Bak 2," bringing together various interviews with cast and crew to help understand what Tony Jaa wanted to accomplish with his directing debut. It's interesting to hear the participants talk of the film as a matter of national pride (as well as an answer to Jackie Chan's box office dominance), though the martial art nuances and merging of styles will be of exceptional interest to any fan of the film.
"Capturing a Warrior" (4:52), "The Kingdom" (6:26), and "The Community" (6:31) are a trio of featurettes focused on BTS footage. No voiceover, no interviews, just B-roll from the set, observing the tricks of choreography, the medical emergencies, and the camaraderie of the crew. It's a fantastic glimpse into the making of this epic picture, which appears born from unexpectedly humble origins.
"Interviews with Cast and Crew" (25:21) attempts to cover the eclectic range of production professionals desiring to shed a proper light on the "Ong Bak 2" filming experience, but who are we kidding here? We want Tony Jaa, and thankfully he's here as well, discussing the challenges of direction and action-based performance, along with his hopes for the finished product.
"HDNet: A Look at 'Ong Bak 2'" (2:53) is a worthless piece of promotion featuring film critic Robert Wilonsky, who talks of his love for the movie, brings up Bruce Lee a few times, and plugs his daytime writing job.
International and American Theatrical Trailers are included, along with a Teaser Trailer for the upcoming "Ong Bak 3."
It's been a few years since Tony Jaa last made a cinematic appearance, so I'll accept the often baffling execution of "Ong Bak 2" (which ends with a spiritual cliffhanger for the next film) as long as it keeps Jaa moving forward in the industry. He's a talented guy, even revealing a strong visual sense here that needs some more development, but feels only a few films way from greatness. Messy, but always convincing, "Ong Bak 2: The Beginning" offers Thai cinema basics with the proper Jaa trauma, and it's a delight to have him back.