Tony Jaa returns in the non-prequel to the non-sequel of that really good 2003 film. Confused? You will be.
So apparently the deal for Tony Jaa films is that they’re all going to be called Ong Bak from now on. For marketing purposes, you see. Even when – like this one – they’ve got absolutely nothing to do with that breathtaking 2003 breakthrough.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so cynical and a little bit sinister. Anybody in the market for some foreign-language ass-kicking is bound to have heard of Jaa already. Forget about Ong Bak, he is the franchise. It’s also really confusing: you could easily spend the first 30 minutes of the film wondering how this little kid grows up to become the modern day Jaa of the original. So why perpetuate the name Ong Bak? Well, it’s just easier, innit? And that’s a legitimate answer these days.
But what about the film? Set in some random Thai Middle Age in which a young boy grows up to become the king of all the bandits, this flimsy fig leaf of a plot scarcely serves to cover the film’s true intent: a 90-minute love letter to the bone-breaking brilliance of Tony Jaa.
He’s the Mozart of Muay Thai, the Verdi of violence, the, um, Schubert of kicking the shit out of people. But where Ong Bak concentrated on Jaa’s unique physicality, The Beginning showcases his facility with every pointy weapon imaginable, from bog standard swords to various long dangly things bedecked with all manner of chains, spikes and studs.
Whether you prefer this kind of thing to more traditional chop socky is probably a matter of personal taste, but there’s no denying that Jaa is a true martial artist, a prodigy in the classical sense of the word – a freak of human nature whose feats of athletic endurance imply a kind of divine intervention poking through the fabric of the world.
So it’s great, right? Well no. Not content with cracking heads and punching elephants, Jaa took it upon himself to direct. That is when the wheels fell off the project. Quickly followed by the doors, the windshield, the exhaust pipe and every other key bit of machinery.
The story behind the film will pass into legend: how Jaa had an on-set breakdown, disappeared into the jungle for two months to commune with the spirits and returned to conduct a tearful apology to the Thai people on public television. Original Ong Bak director Panna Rittikrai was parachuted in to save the day, armed with a pair of scissors and sticky back plastic, it seems, so obvious are the cuts and joins in the final film that has been pasted together.
From plot to pacing to editing to simple things like logic and exposition, Ong Bak: The Beginning is an absolute horror show of filmmaking self-harm. And to cap it all, just as you’re starting to enjoy the final 30-minute showdown, just as it builds into some sort of crescendo, the film – literally – just stops. Dead. Listen carefully and you might be able to hear the screech of breaks. Check the corner of the frame and you might spot a rueful producer shaking his head as he realises the money has run out.
It’s… weird. But then the whole film is. Tony Jaa obviously is. But like Jaa, it’s also sporadically, triumphantly, transcendently amazing. Just, be prepared…
Tony Jaa! Tony freaking Jaa! TONY JAA!
Every scene in which Tony hits someone: 5. Every scene in which he doesn't: one.
Not a bad film really, but a cynical piece of marketing.