AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 95 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Tien has been defeated. The evil lord Rajasena orders his warriors to beat up on and break the bones of Tien, but just as he is about to be decapitated, a messenger from King Ayothaya arrives bringing a pardon and Tien is released. Tien finds himself in a Buddhist temple and is slowly healed, while also reuniting with his old girlfriend Pim. Meanwhile Rajasena is tormented by visions and then a mysterious, extremely powerful warrior, Bhuti, who seems to want Rajasena’s throne for himself….
I remember very well when word started to first get around of Tony Jaa, this amazing martial arts performer from Thailand who was like a breath of fresh air in the martial arts genre. It was in 2003, and he had just made this amazing showcase for his talents entitled Ong Bak. It got a limited release here in the UK, and I actually travelled quite a bit to see it. The film, or rather Jaa, totally blew me away. He seemed like a mixture of Bruce Lee and his power, Jet Li and his fluidity, and Jackie Chan and his audience-pleasing stuntwork [in fact Jaa has said they are his three main influences], but obviously based around the not widely showcased Thai martial arts of Muay Thai and Teakwondo. This was combined with a quite extreme level of brutality that was actually quite welcome in a genre which had began to shy more and more away from graphic violence. Of course the film just existed to show off Jaa, as did Warrior King and Ong Bak:The Beginning, the latter not actually having anything to do with Ong Bak at all, but so what? These films delivered constant fighting and showed a man with truly incredible skill. Jackie Chan asked Jaa to be the chief villain in Rush Hour 2 [the very thought of those two going at it makes this martial arts movie fan salivate!], which would have probably brought him to the attention of Hollywood. I have no doubt that he would have been a huge Hollywood star if things had carried on the way they had, though I’m not sure Jaa would have liked all the restrictions that American producers would have insisted upon.
However, things then started to go wrong for Jaa. During the making of Ong Bak 2, which he was co-directing, he couldn’t handle the pressure, walked off the set into the jungle and briefly became a monk, causing huge delays and financing difficulties. He was forced to return and complete the film but ran out of time and couldn’t film the ending, so Ong Bak 2 ended with a cliffhanger. He was apparently obliged to then make Ong Bak 3, and after its rushed production he left the film industry to become a proper monk [though there are rumours that he has returned and may start making films again]. The DVD of Ong Bak 3 has been sitting around my house since October and I’ve only just watched it. Why you ask? Because the film, whilst a reasonable commercial success in Thailand, generally met with a bad reception. Seemingly every poster on the IMDB was sounding off at how boring and badly made it was, and it supposedly even had poor fights and very few of them to speak of. I should have learnt now not to be influenced by other people’s view of a film, especially as I often end up having a different opinion from the norm anyway! Well, I finally watched Ong Bak 3, and it is an extremely flawed movie, but it’s not quite a disaster. Maybe that’s expectation for you; when the film first came out, people expected reels and reels of martial arts magic and were understandably disappointed when the movie didn’t deliver. Me? I expected a total turd and was pleasantly surprised. Honestly, after reading some of the reviews of Ong Bak 3, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s absolutely dreadful, but you’d be wrong.
Ong Bak 3 opens in really brutal fashion with Tien, the hero, being stretched and beaten, so much so that for a moment I thought I was watching an Asian The Passion of The Christ. Thankfully things do move on and Tien is revived in a monastery. Jaa and his co-director Panna Ritikrai also wrote this one and around here start to bring in lots of Buddhist philosophy, including the interesting concept that bad things are happening to Tien because his previous incarnation did very bad things. There’s a really atmospheric scene where Tien remembers hearing voices from the past, including his father, and tries to work out if the path of the warrior can ever be a happy one, while a haunting Thai song plays in the background. Soon after that, Tien is properly reunited with Pim, a dancer who was his childhood sweetheart, and, for what seems like an eternity, they dance, in a really beautiful and symbolic sequence. I can see why this bored those expecting loads of mayhem, but kudos for Jaa and Ritikrai for going a different and perhaps more different way than was expected. The attempts to build up Rajasena as a kind of Macbeth character, haunted by his evil deeds and subject to hallucinations, don’t really work though and certainly don’t pay off when he’s replaced half way through as the chief villain by the rather laughable Bhuti, replete with loads of black eyeliner, black teeth and a somewhat demonic look. He seems to have supernatural powers, and his motivations are obscure.
There aren’t very many fights in the film, and some of them don’t even feature Jaa. It’s been mooted that Jaa didn’t really care about the film, and so couldn’t be bothered to do as much as usual. It’s notable that when he does finally cut loose in the final quarter, he doesn’t seem to be pushing himself the way he was in his previous films. Apart from a pretty stunning battle on and around some elephants, the fights are simpler, with Tien sometimes defeating opponents with strength that borders on the fantastical, though they’re still impressive by normal standards. The final showdown between hero and main villain is okay but a disappointment considering Jaa’s opponent is Dan Chupong, a martial artist with skill approaching Jaa’s. This brings me to a really ludicrous bit near the end where Tien, having gone a bit wrong, simply rewinds time, ala Superman [and I didn’t like it when he did it either], and does things differently. Honestly, I could’t believe what I was seeing. Then again, this movie is full of stupid plot elements which have been thrown in with little thought or sense. Tien is about to be executed when he’s pardoned by the king. Why? It does seems that Jaa and Ritikrai began Ong Bak 3 with very good intentions, with the idea of creating a more philosophical and thought-provoking martial arts film, but almost gave up half way through and rushed the rest.
Ong Bak 3 is really well photographed by Nuttawat Kittikun, with great use of colour schemes, for example the interiors of the monastery which are usually blue, and some gorgeous countryside photography. Put this together with the chorale-heavy score by Banana Record and Terosak Janpan, and one can see that in some ways Thai martial arts movie filmmaking has artistically improved a fair bit since Ong Bak, though something I was not pleased to see was an excess of CGI imagery, from dream elephants to blood [CG blood just never looks right to me]. As for acting, well Jaa is Jaa; to be honest he was never much of an actor but that usually doesn’t matter, because he spends most of the time in his films kicking ass. Here, he’s required to act more, and fails considerably, but maybe, as mentioned before, he just wanted to get the movie with and so didn’t try very hard. The most enjoyable performance is from Chupong, clearly having fun as a pantomime villain. No, Ong Bak 3 isn’t especially good, but it does have a few good things in it, and is certainly not a total failure. In any case, I have a feeling that it won’t be too long before Jaa makes another movie, and it’ll be a total feast of glorious mayhem!