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Thai martial arts wizard and all round enigma Tony Jaa returns with “Ong Bak 3”, the second sequel to his bone crunching 2003 hit original. As with 2008’s “Ong Bak: The Beginning” Jaa again takes up the directorial reigns as well as scripting and producing, along with mentor and series collaborator Panna Rittikrai. The film is another historical effort, following themes of karma and destiny as Jaa’s warrior comes to terms with his fate while battling villains in a series of wild set pieces. With his apparently having given up his cinematic career to become a Buddhist Monk, the film not only provides a conclusion to the era spanning trilogy, but also offers what may well be one of the last chances for fans to see him kicking ass in his trademark unfettered style.
The film picks up where part 2 left off, with Jaa’s revenge seeking warrior Tien being captured by his nemesis, the evil Lord Rajasena (Saranyu Wonggrajang), and subjected to all manner of tortures. Although his body and spirit are broken, he is pulled back from death by his master Bua (Nirut Sirichanya, who recently showed up in Hong Kong director Derek Yee’s “Protégé”) and childhood love Pim (Primrata Dechudom). Recuperating in the remote Kana Khone village, Tien learns meditation and karmic acceptance, whilst deepening his martial arts skills through graceful dance. Meanwhile, the sinister Crow Ghost (fellow Thai action hero Dan Chupong, also in “Dynamite Warrior” and “Born to Fight”) returns, attempting to seize control of the kingdom from Lord Rajasena for his own terrible purposes.
Although some fans may have preferred a return to the contemporary setting of the original “Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior”, Tony Jaa really deserves praise, and shows commendable ambition in continuing the series as an exploration of its protagonist’s spirituality rather than as a simple violent revenge quest. Possibly reflecting Jaa’s real life personal awakenings, the film makes a genuine attempt to engage with Buddhist philosophy and themes, karma in particular, and does so in earnest fashion, making for a far more interesting and rewarding warrior’s journey than might have been expected. Whilst this does mean that the film does spend a little more time delving into the intangible than some viewers may feel comfortable with, it works very well, and this gives it a different, rich feel that makes it stand out from the ever growing glut of modern Southeast Asian martial arts cinema.
Of course, such lofty aims would mean little if the film failed to deliver the action goods, and thankfully Jaa packs in enough stunning thrills to keep even the most demanding of fans happy. The film features an impressively high quotient of martial arts set pieces, most of which are brutally inventive, as Jaa takes on hordes of sword and spear wielding opponents, with elephants and the supernatural also being thrown into the mix. The choreography is fast and fluid, with plenty of blood and limb snapping, along with the expected knees to the face and other parts of the anatomy. Although Jaa does opt for slow motion or other enhancements a few times too many, an obvious amount of effort has gone into making the film’s martial arts authentic, and this really shows up on screen. This is particularly impressive during the later stages, when his style evolves through the use of traditional dance, which is considerably more vicious than it may sound. Along with Jaa, Dan Chupong is also on superb form, and has plenty of chances to show off his fast, acrobatic skills, surely marking him as a future genre star, and the final duel between the two is well worth waiting for.
The film is certainly one of the best and most handsome looking Thai productions of recent years, with its budget having been effectively spent on some excellent sets and location shooting. Jaa and Rittikrai’s direction is solid and stylish, keeping the film moving at a good pace without ever resorting to anything too flashy or techniques that might have been at odds with the period setting. The film does suffer at times from a somewhat variable tone, with comedian Petchtai Wongkamiao providing some rather unnecessary comic relief, though this never gets in the way of things too much, and doesn’t undermine its spiritual concerns.
As a result, “Ong Bak 3” stands as a fitting end to one of the most exciting martial arts series of recent years, and one which should certainly keep Jaa’s fans happy. The film certainly shows him having developed considerably as a film maker since the crude though effective original, and whether or not he returns to the screen, he has undoubtedly left his mark on the genre.
Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai (director) / Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai (screenplay)
CAST: Sorapong Chatree … Chernung
Tony Jaa … Tien
Nirut Sirichanya … Master Bua
Dan Chupong … Bhuti Sangkha
Sarunyu Wongkrachang … Jom Rachan