Bone-crunching action triumphs over story and, uh, character development in costume chopsocky "Ong Bak 2," basically a series of fights peppered with flashbacks to provide a semblance of plot.

Bone-crunching action triumphs over story and, uh, character development in costume chopsocky “Ong Bak 2,” basically a series of fights peppered with flashbacks to provide a semblance of plot. Apart from also starring Thai martial artist du jour Tony Jaa, the pic has no connection at all with 2003 hit “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” and, though less varied as a movie, is a slicker piece of work in which the extra coin shows. Film zoomed to No. 1 on local release in early December, but in Western markets, Jaa’s cold, machine-like persona will limit this to hardcore martial arts fans.

Originally billed as Jaa’s directorial debut, the pic emerges with two helmers’ names on the print — Jaa and one of his mentors, vet stunt coordinator Panna Rittikrai, who reportedly upped his duties when Jaa went AWOL for a while near the end of shooting. Jaa’s other mentor, helmer Prachya Pinkaew, who directed him in “Ong-Bak” and “Tom-Yum-Goong” (aka “The Protector”), is one of several producers credited.

It’s impossible from the evidence available to say whether Jaa himself has any talent as a director, though the pic is cleanly shot, is again at pains to show that no doubles or wire-fu were used, and, like the great Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, enhances the physicality of the action by showing whole bodies during set pieces. Throughout, cutting is snappy but not hysterical.

It’s 1431, and the kingdom of Ayudhaya is continuing its aggressive expansion. En route, royal army commander Lord Sihadecho (Santisuk Promsiri) and his wife (Pattama Panthongphetthai) are murdered by the treacherous Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrajang). Their athletic teenage son, Tien (Natdanai Kongthong), escapes, only to be captured by a bunch of sleazy slave traders who toss him in a crocodile pit.

After a couple rounds with the croc, Tien is rescued by the Garuda Wing Cliff bandits, led by the bearded Chernang (vet Sorapong Chatree, commanding), who, sensing a special quality in the kid, trains him over several years to become a champion (Jaa). Entering at the 20-minute mark, Jaa wastes no time in strutting his stuff — first, walking the backs of stampeding elephants before making them kneel in supplication, and then fighting fellow bandits in a series of tests supervised by Chernang.

There’s a distinctly old-fashioned, ’70s feel to the peanut-sized plot and long fight sequences, shot with minimal fuss, as Tien avenges himself first on the slave traders and then, overcome with a severe case of the flashbacks, tells Chernang he must avenge his parents. Final half-hour of nonstop mano-a-mano ends in a direct setup for a sequel.

Fight enthusiasts will note that Jaa goes way beyond just Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) here, showing he can imitate everyone from Jackie Chan to Bruce Lee and even venturing into classical masked dance at one point. But Jaa’s fatal flaw (even when playing a negative character like Tien) is his one-note lack of humor (Kongthong exhibits considerably more charm as the younger Tien). Couple this with Tien’s invincibility, which is only in doubt near the very end, as well as the pic’s repetitive jungle settings, and these flaws progressively diminish the fight sequences, despite all the skill on display.

Plot’s sliver of romance, involving a pretty dance student (Wongkamlaoprimrata Det-Udom), is so token it hardly seems worth including. Dusty, ochreish color is variable, though other tech contributions are generally fine. The pounding, rhythmic score pushes the action along, and production design and costuming are convincingly opulent or grungy when required.

Ong Bak 2

Thailand

Production

A Sahamakongkolfilm release of a Sahamongkolfilm Intl. Co., Aiyara Film Co. production. (International sales: Sahamongkolfilm, Bangkok.) Produced by Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai, Tony Jaa, Akarapol Techaratanaprasert. Executive producer, Somsak Techaratanaprasert. Directed by Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai. Screenplay, Ek Iemchuen, Nontakorn Taveesuk; story, Jaa, Rittikrai.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Nuttawut Kittikun; editors, Marut Seelacharoen, Saravut Nakachul; music, Terdsak Janpan, Banana Record; production designers, Iemchuen, Suprasit Putakarm; art director, Banphot Ngamkum; costume designer, Chatchai Chaiyon; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Vanilla Sky; action director, Jaa; action supervisor, Rittikrai; martial arts choreography, Jaa. Reviewed at Shaw Lido 2, Singapore, Jan. 8, 2009. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrajang, Pattama Panthongphetthai, Wongkamlaoprimrata Det-Udom, Nirut Sirijanya, Santisuk Promsiri, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Natdanai Kongthong, Somdet Kaewler, Dan Chupong, Supakorn Kitsuwon, Nga Caravan, Yokyek Chernyim, Mum Jokmok, Tim Man.

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