The Passion of the Jaa
I love Tony Jaa. He's a goddamn dynamo. When Jackie Chan lost his balls to the same kiddie grinder that claimed Eddie Murphy and Ice Cube, I fretted that there'd be a lack of a does-his-own-stunts acrobatic martial artist. And along came Jaa. Watching him flip around and smash things with his elbows and knees, careening off temple walls and marketplace stalls like Tinkerbell on meth, it's a motherfucking joy to behold. But somewhere between Ong Bak: the Thai Warrior and this film, he burned out in a big fucking way. The slip started under extreme pressure during the filming of the second film, which I despite a confubbling plot I adored, merely because Jaa ended the film kicking the shit out of ALL THE NINJAS. All one hundred thousand. But in the latest installment, Jaa's lost prince warrior is beaten and broken, and infused with the noble spirit of Buddha, decides to become a fucking peaceful warrior. Much of the film is devoted to the plot of Steven Seagal's Hard to Kill -- with Tien (Tony Jaa) relearning how to love and regaining his strength. At a meager 97 minutes, the film cuts down on the brutal action, with a few sword fights standing in place of Jaa's asskicking ways. It's a little like if they made a fifth Die Hard, only it involved John McClane going to counseling for all the horrible shit that happened to him.
Ong Bak 3 picks up right where the last film left off, with Tien captured and getting beaten to a bloody broken-boned pulp by the henchmen of Chernang. The Crow Demon (fellow martial arts dynamo Dan Chupong) has returned to torment Chernang and claim the throne. Meanwhile, Tien's execution is stayed by an order of the king. After a failed assassination attempt is thwarted by everyone in the village dying, Tien is rescued to a Buddhist temple where his spiritual guide tells him to let all the wrath and rage and guilt and greed go, as these sins prevent a man from advancing. And then he goes to fight the Crow Demon. And that's the end.
When Jaa or Chupong fight, it's fucking amazing, as expected. In fact, it's Chupong really who steals the show in this flick, having been brought into the series when Jaa went crazy and left set for two months and the filming was taken over by Panna Rittikrai, Jaa's mentor. The Crow Ghost/Demon is a hollowed out shell, twitching like a bird, flanked in black tattoos and a feathered rag cloak. When Chernang sends his goons to take him out, he busts them up with remarkable styrofoam brick busting violence. The stunt work -- mostly the cannon fodder -- is remarkable, as people aren't just knocked out, but send flying into trees and sliding down two stories to land on their heads. As much as I loved the elephant combat of the first, Jaa brings in an entire Barnum and Bailey parkour setup, bounding over several elephants and using them as walls to kick bad guys into. If PETA shit a kitten (and then apologized...naked) over the elephantics of the first film, they're going lose their mind when they see them with stunt men smashing into them upside down and the final finish move involving falling onto an elephant's forehead and impaling themselves on the tusk which cracks off the elephant's head.
But there's just not enough fighting to make it worth the price of admission. I guess when he went crazy, Jaa developed a Christ complex. Because it's evident with the sacrificial crucifixation he has on spiritual advancement. He gets beaten, and then mercifully kicks ass for the Lord Buddha. They were even touting this one for the spectacular showdown between Chupong and Jaa, two titans of Thai kickboxing finally coming together. But, they already fought -- in Ong Bak 2. And it was great. And it was still great. But Jaa's losing my appreciation to his young protege JeeJa Yanin, the crazy asskicking waif of Chocolate and Raging Phoenix. I don't mind if you learn a very special message while you kick ass, so long as you kick ass when you learn. When your martial arts movie is only 1/3 martial arts, you're doing it wrong. I'm glad this is the final battle, because I can't take much more Ong Bak.