Judge Gordon Sullivan is a pad thai warrior.
Our reviews of Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (Blu-Ray) (published February 2nd, 2010), Ong Bak 3 (Blu-Ray) (published February 8th, 2011), Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (published September 12th, 2005), and Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior (Blu-Ray) (published February 8th, 2010) are also available.
A new breed of martial arts hero is born.
The early 2000s were a strange time for the martial arts movie. The biggest international stars (Jackie Chan, Jet Li) had largely abandoned the genre, The Matrix films had raised American expectations about fight choreography, and martial arts epics that focused on mythology as much as action were becoming the norm in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though nobody was calling for it, the world was ripe for a take-no-prisoners, back-to-basics martial arts flick that didn't try to get fancy with the wires or CGI. Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior was that film, launching a franchise and turning Tony Jaa into the martial arts flavor of the month. Though the sequels weren't as stunning as the original, they were interesting for offering fans something new. All three films are now available in a single Blu-ray set, but fans are going to have a hard time justifying it.
Ong Bak is the name of a Buddha statue in a tiny village in Thailand. One day thieves from Bangkok come to take the head of the statue, leaving it decapitated. Ting (Tony Jaa), a young man from the village, volunteers to take the villagers' money to buy the head back. Through a series of misfortunes he loses the money in Bangkok and must prove his Muay Thai boxing skills to win back the money and his village's statue.
Ong Bak 2 is a fantasy prequel to Ong Bak, where Tien (Tony Jaa), the son of a murdered nobleman is brought up by a famous fighter (Sorapong Chatree, The Sin). Once he's mastered the martial arts, Tien seeks vengeance for the death of his father.
Ong Bak 3 opens where the cliff-hanger of the second film left off, with Tien apparently defeated. It doesn't go well for him, and in this film he has to rehabilitate himself after a devastating defeat.
The past decade or so has not been kind to Tony Jaa. Though Ong Bak earned a ton of buzz from martial arts fans eager for a new major talent, pretty much everything else the star has done since has earned tepid to hostile responses. It didn't help matters that The Protector, Jaa's first starring vehicle after the success of Ong Bak, was sometimes mis-sold as Ong Bak 2. Then the real Ong Bak 2 ran into financial troubles and didn't arrive for a full five years after the first film. The fact that it was an historical epic that completely abandoned the setting and premise of the first film didn't help matters. That the third film had a ton of Buddhist philosophy instead of wall-to-wall action scenes only made matters worse.
With hindsight, the original Ong Bak is a great debut for a new action star. It combines just the right amount of familiar genre markers—the underground fighting, the country-bumpkin fighter—with the impressive visuals of Tony Jaa's relatively-unseen Muay Thai skills. The fact that Jaa did his own stunts without the aid of wires and CGI gives the whole affair a keen edge that harkens back to the wave of Hong Kong films in the late '80s that so thrilled viewers. Ten years later the film is still impressive. Those kicks and punches are still bone-rattling, and because few action stars train in Muay Thai even today, Jaa's moves look surprisingly fresh in a world dominated by MMA-style grappling.
Also in hindsight, it's easier to see the two "sequels" as a whole separate film, and not having to wait two years between them makes it easier to see them as a single experience. In that spirit, the excellent action sequences from Jaa and his companions just about balance out the fact that we get almost no character development and the space between those action sequences just gets longer and longer. I totally sympathize with the filmmakers of Ong Bak 3 wanting to add a bit of Buddhist material to the story, but if you're going to use a movie to portray a particular philosophy, the action genre is far from the best choice. With a heavy finger on the fast-forward button, these films became an enjoyable collection of fighting moments, with plenty of different weapons for Jaa to wield and defend himself against.
The Ong Bak Trilogy is basically a repackaging of the previously-available Blu-ray releases. That's an okay thing when it comes to Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3. Ong Bak 2 gets a 2.35:1/VC-1 encoded transfer that's pretty great. At its best the film has detailed, natural look that helps sell the fantastic elements of the film. The transfer can't cover the fact that the film has been mucked with in post-production, including contrast boosting and color manipulation. But overall it's a very watchable transfer, with plenty of good colors and fine detail. Ong Bak 3 gets a similarly excellent transfer at 2.35:1 but this time encoded with the AVC codec. Again the film has an artificial look to it, but it's very watchable, with lots of good detail underneath the exaggerated color timing. Both of these sequels offer DTS-HD 5.1 tracks in the original Thai language. Both are fantastic, with easily audible dialogue and plenty of surround action during fight scenes. Dynamic range is impressive, as is clarity.
Ong Bak, in contrast, looks pretty terrible. This release is basically a re-release of the original Fox Blu-ray from several years ago. Though the film is never going to look as slick as the sequels thanks to budget constraints, this 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer does not serve the film. It's alternately soft and overly grainy, with smeary motion and a lack of detail in close-ups. Color saturation is only so-so, and blacks are often full of artifacts. For a film as important to 21st century martial arts cinema as Ong Bak, this transfer is a shame. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack isn't terrible, but it is a remix supervised by RZA rather than the original Thai track, which will continue to irk purists. Luckily the remixed music offers plenty of low-end power to an otherwise anemic track.
At least all three films get some decent extras. The first film gets a series of featurettes that look at Jaa's stunts, RZA's love of the film, the making of a music video for French rapper Tragedie (along with the video itself), as well as some raw footage of a few stunts and the film's trailer. For Ong Bak 2 we get a slimmed-down alternate cut, a standard making-of featurette, 18 minutes of behind the scenes footage, and 22 minutes of interviews with the cast/crew. There's also a brief promo from HDNet, a preview of Ong Bak 3, and two trailers for the film. Ong Bak 3 gets a couple of featurettes, and 32 minutes of interviews with the cast/crew. There's also another HDNet promo and the film's trailer.
For those who haven't yet experienced any of the Ong Bak films, this set is a great way to get them all in one place. Sadly, it's not the kind of release that will please fans. Because there's been no remastering of the original film—or an explanation why such a project wouldn't be worthwhile—there's absolutely no reason for fans to upgrade aside from a shiny, gold-embossed sleeve. Though these films contain some of the best martial arts action in the 21st century, they also ask viewers to sit through a lot of so-so material to get to it.
Not guilty, but not great.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Ong Bak
Perp Profile, Ong Bak
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, Ong Bak
Scales of Justice, Ong Bak 2
Perp Profile, Ong Bak 2
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, Ong Bak 2
• Alternate Cut
Scales of Justice, Ong Bak 3
Perp Profile, Ong Bak 3
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, Ong Bak 3
Review content copyright © 2014 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.