Thai martial-arts wiz Tony Jaa shot to international stardom with the 2003 film Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, a breakneck whirlwind of intense, choreographed violence about a rural villager who ventures to modern Bangkok to recover the head of a revered statue stolen from his people, unleashing much acrobatic whoop-ass in the process. Five years later, Jaa returned to the world that made him famous, co-directing a follow-up with Ong Bak scripter Panna Rittikrai. Though touted as a prequel, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning holds zero ties to its progenitor — other than being a first-class martial-arts showcase.
Ong Bak 2 moves back to 15th-century Thailand to tell the story of a young prince whose family is brutally murdered by rivals. The boy escapes and falls under the protection of a gang of outlaw assassins skilled in combat and killing. Under their tutelage, he grows into adulthood, becoming a master of all fighting forms, arguably the best. The years also ferment haunting questions about his family’s death, and he leaves his new home to confront those responsible — a journey that reveals ties closer than expected.
The story is a predictable, historical revenge fantasy/coming-of-age drama, and that’s fine since it exists only as a frame for Jaa’s incredible fight sequences. All manners of styles — Thai Muay Boran, Japanese Kenjutsu, Indonesian Harimau Silat, Chinese Zui Quan, Wing Chun and Hung Ga kung fu and more — erupt in a nonstop maelstrom from beginning to end.
The set-ups are equally impressive, particularly Jaa’s dispatch of a gang while flailing about on a live elephant (a incredible bit elaborated from his 2005 film The Protector). Jaa has raised the bar on martialarts cinema significant degrees, and considering Ong Bak 2’s cliffhanger ending, one can only imagine what spectacles a third film will bring. Grade: B