Tony Jaa is one of the most exciting figures in international action cinema today; while he’s little more than a cult figure in the United States, he’s a superstar in many Asian countries, and with good reason. Jaa is a master of Muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, and there have been few martial arts stars with Jaa’s level of skill and fierce grace when he stages a fight scene; he’s as good as anyone who has emerged onscreen since Bruce Lee, and when he’s on-point it’s not hard to believe Jaa could beat Lee at his own game. In Tony Jaa’s best movies, watching him fight is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball -- you know what he’s doing, but it’s hard to imagine how he got to do it quite so well. Unfortunately, in Ong Bak 3, the third and supposedly last in Jaa’s best-known franchise to date, watching him is like watching Michael Jordan play baseball -- it’s not that he’s bad, but it doesn’t take an expert to realize we’re not watching the guy in a game that favors him.
Like the first two films in the series, Ong Bak 3 is short on narrative and serious character development; however, in the first two movies that was because Jaa was too busy showing off his dazzling footwork to bother with stuff like plot. In this picture, Jaa spends surprisingly little time fighting bad guys, and instead the minimal plot often stops in its tracks to show Jaa dancing or practicing tai chi-style stretching exercises, and he takes a lot more punishment than he dishes out -- in the early reels, Jaa may be the most physically abused man in the movies since James Caviezel suffered for Mel Gibson’s sins in The Passion of the Christ.
Ong Bak 3 starts where the second film ended (and like Ong Bak 2, it has no narrative ties to the first movie in the series); Jaa plays Tien, a warrior who near the end of part two killed the man who murdered his father but also taught him how to fight. Here, Tien is at the mercy of Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrajang), a despicable tyrant who rules with an iron hand. Tien finds his way to freedom, but is haunted by strange visions of the past and makes his way to the camp of a kind-hearted Buddhist healer and her beautiful daughter, Pim (Wongkamlaoprimrata Det-Udom), whom Tien has loved since they were children. Tien escapes to the wilderness, where he spends long hours with his spiritual master (Nirut Sirijanya), who helps him regain strength of both body and soul. But evil is on the prowl, in the form of the mysterious and malevolent Crow Ghost (Dan Chupong), whose supernatural powers inhabit the body of Lord Rajasena, leading to a grand-scale battle between Tien and Rajasena’s men.
Tony Jaa co-wrote and co-directed Ong Bak 3 with his longtime collaborator Panna Rittikrai, and it’s somewhat remarkable how far it drifts from the strengths of Jaa’s best work. While the first two films recalled Joe Bob Briggs’ old dictum about the story not getting in the way of the plot, there the excitement of the action scenes pushed the movies forward when the narrative didn’t. Conversely, much of Ong Bak 3 moves lethargically, with little action and lots of flashbacks, dim spectral images, and spiritual mumbo-jumbo taking the place of either a strong story or compelling visuals. Jaa seems quite interested in allowing the camera to admire him as he intensely exercises or meditates in a stream, but a little of both goes a long way in this movie, as does the plodding romantic dance sequence between Jaa and Det-Udom, whose chemistry together is minimal at best. None of this is helped by the fact that Jaa is by no means an accomplished actor; he’s a genius at fighting and knows how to play to the camera in an action scene, yet he doesn’t give himself enough chances to kick people to compensate for his faulty chops as a thespian. And while Jaa and his directors usually stage his fight scenes with plenty of long shots to let you see what he’s doing (and how well he does it), in Ong Bak 3 the fights are staged and cut with a mind toward kinetic effects that instead rob the sequences of their power, like a dance scene played off the partners’ faces rather than their bodies. It’s been reported that Tony Jaa is taking a leave of absence from film acting to focus on his study of Buddhism; that might help explain his disinterest in acting and his focus on spirituality in Ong Bak 3, but if this is his last major screen vehicle for a while, he hasn’t given his fans much of a reason to wait around for his comeback, as this is one of his least exciting vehicles to date.
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- Released: 2010
- Rating: R
- Review: Tony Jaa is one of the most exciting figures in international action cinema today; while he’s little more than a cult figure in the United States, he’s a superstar in many Asian countries, and with good reason. Jaa is a master of Muay Thai, or Thai kickbox… (more)