A friend of mine once expressed his desire to see something he called Fight: The Movie: a single 90-minute action sequence devoid of plot or character, with one guy beating the crap out of a small army of opponents in countless different ways for the whole of the running time. The Ong-bak trilogy is pretty much his dearest fantasy come to life: anchored by martial arts phenom Tony Jaa and embracing a storyline of Talmudic opaqueness that becomes a lot less important once the body blows start flying.
To be fair, the complicated stuff only arrives in the second and third film of the series. The first is pretty simple: bad guys steal sacred elephant head from Thai village. Village’s Muay Thai champion (Jaa) volunteers to get it back. He heads to the big city, where a steady stream of scumbags becomes intimately involved with his fists before he finally confronts the crime lord behind it all. It’s direct, straightforward and very brutal, but Jaa’s physical skills are peerless and the action-as-pure-stimulus model works very well thanks to a high amount of technical polish. It made a huge amount of money on the international market (though it remains strictly a cult film in North America), which naturally created the demand for a sequel.
Here’s where things get funky. Instead of just pushing an excuse to do the same thing all over again, Ong-bak 2 and 3 takes the prequel route. 400 years’ worth or prequel. We shift from the 21st Century to the 15th, where Jaa’s character is the son of a nobleman, rescued from slavers by an outlaw who trains him in the martial arts. When he comes of age, he launches a war of vengeance against the slavers augmented by his general bad-assery and the copious use of elephant-fu. The fight was so huge it took a third film to finish, which also sets up the central macguffin in the first film while adding a whole lot of mystic undercurrents to what was previously a straight-up good vs. evil bash.
The thought that went into such a twist suggests filmmakers who respect the process, and the onscreen results show. Sure, the storyline is wafer thin and characterization is nonexistent, but good Lord is that not the point. Indeed, the less the Ong-bak films engage in active storytelling, the better they do. The fights themselves are the purpose of the exercise, and on that front all three films score big. They embrace over-the-top brutality and revel in the kind of intensity that Hollywood will never have the stones for. The spiritual material comes on a little heavy, but again, it serves to accentuate the action instead of replacing it.
Average filmgoers won’t find much to enjoy in them either, but hard-core action hounds will find something fairly unique here. Jaa is a better martial artist than an actor, but watching him perform these intense stunts – without the use of wires of CG tricks – is a thing to behold. Maintaining that level of engagement in material this slight takes some doing, and the Ong-bak trilogy excels when it lets its central figure just cut loose and do his thing.
The new trilogy set collects all of the existing Blu-rays into a single purchase, allowing you to save some money in one fell swoop. Sound and video quality are excellent, though don’t expect much from the extra features (which are quite sparse). You also shouldn’t expect any character development, story development or trace of what we laughingly refer to as “plot.” These films know what they are and deliver what they promise, which means you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect when you make the purchase. If you’re a fan and you haven’t picked up the Ong Bak films yet, this set makes a handy (and comparatively inexpensive) way to complete the collection in one fell swoop.