Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ong-Bak 2

Mankind is one giant family united by blood and history, but it has long been a family at war with itself. That is, until one man brought us all together: Tony Jaa. White or black, Asian or Caucasian, Muslim or Undecided, we could all agree on one thing: That motherfucker kicks ass. In Ong-Bak, he taught us that it doesn’t matter if your feet are on fire as long as you can still crack skulls open with your elbows. In The Protector, he proved that there is no force on earth more powerful than a Thai man separated from his elephants. And in his eagerly awaited (and, as of this writing, not officially available in the U.S. yet) directorial debut, Ong-Bak 2, he illustrates that, while it’s possible to kick every ass you meet, ultimate enlightenment can only be achieved when you kick the ass inside yourself.

I’ve been waiting for this movie to come out for years, pretty much ever since the credits for The Protector rolled in 2007. It got announced pretty quick, but its release kept getting delayed because Jaa had already spent all of the money in Thailand, so he had to wait for them to print more before he could continue filming. Then the pressures of directing and starring in the most expensive movie in Thai history while choreographing some of the most intricate fight sequences ever attempted and performing all of his own stunts caused him to have a nervous breakdown, so he had to wander off into the jungle by himself and live with the elephants for a few months before he could get his shit back together and complete the shoot. When a man pushes himself to the brink like that in the name of ass-kicking, I feel that it is my sworn duty as a proponent of the badass arts to see that man’s movie as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the Weinsteins have the U.S distribution rights, so we all know what that means: It’ll sit on the shelf for a year or so while they cut out all the weird parts and splice in a new score by some white guy with a ponytail who listened to Dr. Dre once, then they’ll release it in three or four American cities for a week and a half and then complain to Variety that American audiences just don’t “get” Asian cinema. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again, and I, for one, am not gonna stand for it anymore. That’s why I went to extraordinary lengths to procure this film in the here and now. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. If you want to see Ong-Bak 2, you have to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who has the Internet. Then you have to ask that last guy if you can use his computer for a sec, and then you have to order the Asian import DVD from eBay because they didn’t have it at the porn store where you normally buy your Asian import DVDs.

Ong-Bak 2 has nothing to do with Ong-Bak 1 except that they’re both too awesome for this sick, sad world of ours. The first one was the story of a modern-day Thai dude who has to go to Bangkok and put his knee through about 250 faces so he can bring this stolen Buddha statue back to his village. The second one is much more epic. It takes place 700 years ago, when all these warlords were running around Southeast Asia, ripping shit up. Jaa plays this dude who gets trained by these multi-culti pirates to be the most hardcore motherfucker ever so he can go get revenge on the cocksuckers that murdered his mom and dad. That’s about all the plot a movie like this really needs, but Jaa is clearly trying to imbue this thing with some kind of spiritual message, so this simple story gets pumped up to Ben Hur levels through sheer filmmaking gusto. The visuals are sumptuous and colorful, with lots of slow-mo shots of Jaa standing on a cliff in front of the sunrise or looking all crazy-eyed into the camera with his hair hanging in his face while the cold, cold rain pours down like the golden shower of the Buddha. This is a beautifully crafted movie. Every facet of this film, from the camerawork to the art design to the acting, is comparable and in some ways superior to Hollywood product. Thai cinema has come a long way since Battle Warrior, where they couldn’t even afford lights or costumes. It’s even come a long way from the original Ong-Bak, which was amazing as an action showcase but pretty retarded as a movie. With Ong-Bak 2, however, Jaa clearly isn’t happy with making just another cheesy action flick about transvestite gangsters who steal elephants to impress their Australian investors. He’s trying to make some art here, and I think he might succeed a little bit. He lets the visuals do most of the talking, giving every frame a trippy kind of mysticism, while the score’s triumphantly old-fashioned trumpets put you in a Braveheart state of mind. I really don’t know what message he’s trying to convey with all this, but it certainly makes the movie feel more elegant and dramatic than any other Thai movie I’ve ever seen.

But shit, watching a Thai action movie for the cinematography is like watching a porno for the costumes. We’re here for action, and action we get. Ong-Bak 2 is less of a stunt movie than the first one. This is a straight-up fight movie. There are fewer jaw-dropping moments where you can’t believe that a human being just did that and survived, but the furiously paced fights, while smaller scaled, are much more intricate and varied. Jaa shows off by using just about every style of kung fu known to man, from Drunken Fist to Tiger Crane to his trademark Muay Thai, which he saves until the climactic 30-minute no-holds-barred battle royale with dozens of masked henchmen. He also gets to use a lot of weapons. Some are pretty standard, like swords and spears, but he also busts out some more exotic ones, like the Coiling Dragon Staff and this other one that looks like a nightstick tied to several yards of yarn. This movie is basically Jaa proving that he’s a well-rounded martial artist and doesn’t have to remain stuck in the Muay Thai ghetto. The glorious Thai people have always had a chip on their shoulder about their homegrown martial arts, so this movie is all about Jaa showing the purists of China and Japan that Thailand is ready to run with the big dogs.

Did I mention that this movie is absolutely insane? The plot keeps getting derailed by all these flashbacks and training montages, so you just never know what the fuck else is gonna happen in this thing. There’s this one scarfaced dude who lives at the pirate village where Jaa grows up who likes to throw explosives around for fun, so shit is always blowing up for no reason. There’s also some really excellent crocodile wrestling featuring what has to be the best CGI croc I’ve ever seen, since there’s just no other way they could get a 12-year-old that close to the jaws of death. Jaa also runs across the backs of a herd of stampeding elephants so he can put the leader to sleep with a punch to the top of the head, at which point all of the other elephants kneel before him like he was fucking Babar. Then there’s a flashback where Dirty Balls from Ong-Bak shows up and scratches his nuts. Then there’s this part where Jaa has to fight this gigantic motherfucker who’s got tattoos on his face that make him look like Fred Williamson after he got turned into a vampire in From Dusk Till Dawn. Speaking of vampires, Jaa fights one. He gets sent into this cave to test the power of his mind, so you think he’s gonna have to chop his own head off like Luke did in that evil tree in Empire Strikes Back. Instead, it’s more like the torture pit in Army of Darkness, because this pointy-toothed she-bitch starts hissing and spitting and jumping off the walls and trying to bite his throat out. Oh yeah, and he also does an interpretive dance while wearing a gorilla mask and fights a flying witch who’s dressed up like a crow. On the back of an elephant. Whose face he just did a bicycle kick off of. Which was after this Arabian dude with a wicker basket on his head threw him off a building. Twice.

And then it just…ends. There’s a heartbreaking twist that you probably saw coming, and then things look hopeless for our young hero, and then this narrator informs us that all this shit is Jaa’s own fault but that maybe if we all pray for him he will be relieved of his torment and find inner peace, which I take to mean that there will probably be a third movie, but only if we all go see this one. It’s like in the stage production of Peter Pan where the audience has to prove that they believe in fairies or Tinkerbell dies. It’s totally jarring and probably really, really Buddhist.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where Ong-Bak 3 isn’t being rushed into production, so I’ll believe in fairies, vampires, bird bitches, Loch Ness monsters, Bigfeet, whatever you got. Just give me more Tony Jaa. Considering how long it took for this movie to finally get released, haven’t we all suffered enough?

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