So I was a little bit undecided about Ong Bak 2, and reserved judgement until this installment came out since both films make up one story, leading up to the first Ong Bak film quite loosely - we see how the Ong Bak Buddha statue got created here, the same one whose head was lost in the first film. With this film put together, you can tell Tony Jaa had quite an idea of a premise for these prequels, but I suppose his inexperience as a filmmaker behind the camera have led to the inexplicable break down during production, and probably after this film which dealt with karma, positive vibes and all, may have put him on the path to monkhood.
Picking up directly where we last left off in that cliffhanger ending in Part 2 after an opening credits montage to quickly jog our memory, we see how Tien gets systematically broken down by the many minions of his nemesis Lord Rajasena (Sarunyoo Wongkrachang). Here's where I think the Thai audience have the last laugh with their recent censor ratings. Ong Bak 3 is rating an 18+ there, and over here, we got by with an NC16. Not so bad I thought to myself, until the first 5 minutes saw a number of badly executed butchering of the film, that I balked. We should have gone M18 to be in line, and perhaps those torture scenes would have survived the censors scissors. But no thanks to the distributors who decided to try and make this film appeal to a larger Jaa audience. Surprisingly though the more violent moments later on in the film were left untouched, scenes that I felt were violent enough with the likes of a decapitation, and face/head stomp to warrant an axe under the NC16 rating. But I'm not a censor, so I can't guess what's going on behind the scenes.
Anyway, action fans may feel a little bit disappointed with this installment which ran just over 90 minutes. For the first hour we only have limited battle sequences involving our hero, so savour whatever you can in his fight for survival against hordes of weapon wielding enemies who have the unfair advantage of strength in numbers against a badly beaten (just came off those numerous fights from Ong Bak 2) Tien. Totally broken and just as he's about to be executed, Tien gets saved by the bell and brought back to the village of Kana Khone, where another fight ensues involving his new rescuers against Rajasena's assassins.
Then it's a good plod onto the hour mark, where Tien goes through a reincarnation of sorts, involving body wraps, mystical chants, Master Bua (Nirut Sirichanya) turning to monkhood and imparting pearls of wisdom, the rehabilitation of body, mind and soul, time for romance with Pim (Primorata Dejudom) his pillar of strength, discussions of karmic philosophy and the circle of life. Tien has to unlearn what he has learnt, and basically has to snap all the bones of his body back in place before he can practice martial arts again, which brings us a bearded Jaa and a training montage in a tree, under water, showing off a lean though scarred body, and is that a little paunch I see as well?
So while Tien takes a breather of sorts for his transformation, the duty of keeping the action junkies entertained fell on Dan Chupong's shoulders, as his very short supporting role as the Crow Ghost got expanded here, with his motivation fully revealed. His character soars to evil heights here, taking over the mantle as chief villain, and allowing Chupong to reintroduce himself as an action star to be reckoned with in his own right. Those who have seen Born to Fight and Dynamite Warrior will know what he is capable of, and I really salute him for daring to take on a negative role just to spar with Jaa onscreen.
But what a letdown when they finally get together to do battle. Overall I found their sparring quite weak compared to what had been done earlier in the film involving other exponents, and the finishing blow was quite a letdown. Already the number of fights and spars here were limited to begin with, one even involving the architecture of the mind (sorry, Inception still fresh), and this one just didn't pack enough oomph. It's built up to be something like Tien being a Moses to lead his people, captive by the Crow to be slaves getting constantly whipped, back to their promised land, and hey, he even comes with a staff that got dropped off after a magical moment got executed, in time for fisticuffs.
The only positive coming out from this new Tien, is his new fighting ability. Tien is now more graceful, thanks to the fusion of dance to his moves, and the many moments when this parallel that dance brings to the table, got heavy emphasis, meshing what we usually think of as effeminate, to giving that suppleness to the more masculine moves involving elbows and knees to bone-crunching effect. This to-the-point moves were not forgotten of course, and come in the form of very economical, sometimes comical, but always simple, strikes involving forearms and a rigid body trained to be as hard as steel. I still miss those drunken fists moves from the earlier film, and the insanely choreographed finale battles then, which this one had tried to emulate, only to be a pale shadow of its former's glory and variety of techniques put up for show.
Comedian Petchtai Wongkamiao provided some comic relief in a film that took itself quite seriously, and I think in light of some of the themes that were handled in quite a verbose manner, this was much appreciated. Ong Bak 3 straddles martial arts and philosophy very openly and tried to strike a fair balance between the two, but alas it came off as quite a schizophrenic film very much like True Legend in spirit. I hope the Ong Bak 2 and 3 episodes (and what went on during the troubled production) don't tank Tony Jaa's career, because I'm sure he has enough in reserve to wow audiences once again, should the right story come along that pushes his physical boundaries.