Don’t be fooled by that title. Narratively, Ong-Bak: The Beginning has nothing to do with the explosive 2003 Thai beat-’em-up that introduced the world to martialarts superman Tony Jaa.
Apart from the fact it again involves Jaa beating seven shades of bejesus out of assorted foes. We’re suddenly in medieval Thailand, but the promise is the same: full contact, no wires, no CG, lots of pain.
Things start brilliantly, as village boy Tiang (Jaa) sees his family massacred à la Conan and is chucked face-first into a crocodile pit. You can forget about rubber models: this jawsnapping monster looks as real as they come. Splashed with mud, blood and rain, the action is superbly shot in stylised slow-mo as Tiang survives to train himself into an ultimate warrior with a thirst for vengeance.
Unleashing everything from kung fu to pole-fighting, the mayhem is bloodier than Ong-Bak but suffers a similar problem to Warrior King. Hurling waves of fighters into Jaa’s path doesn’t distract from the fact there’s little story to cling to. No matter.
Relentless it might be, but the skull-busting here batters anything in recent Hollywood actioners. Much of it, weirdly, involves elephants: taming an elephant, running across the backs of charging elephants, evenf ighting on an elephant. At its best, the combat is fast, furious, brutal, unique.
And then it just stops. Screen fades out. Dumb voiceover tells us to pray that Jaa will return. Roll credits. They’ll say it’s the cliffhanger set-up for a sequel/trilogy. More likely, they just plain ran out of money and time: burdened with starring and co-writing/directing, Jaa famously went Colonel Kurtz midway through the shoot, disappearing for a while into the jungle.
When you realise there’s no end to The Beginning, you can’t help feeling cheated.
Some new moves and old tricks from Tony Jaa, still packing a wallop but in need of a truly knockout narrative. Then again, when have you ever seen two men fighting on top of an elephant?